‘Lois & Clark’ and How to Avoid Jumping the Shark in Sixty-Seven Simple Steps

I’ve been rewatching Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman on and off for the past few years. The first two seasons are a lot of fun. It’s a cheesy show, absolutely, but during those first two years, it was satisfying cheese that hit the spot and got the characters exactly right—certainly far better than any recent movies have.

Then, in the third season, the cheese spoiled.

I can only assume the writers were afraid the show might jump the shark if Lois and Clark got married too early, so they contrived all sorts of ways to delay the nuptials. It started with typical TV shenanigans—he wants to get married, but she doesn’t, and then she wants to get married, but he doesn’t, like they mistook themselves for Ross and Rachel.

Such antics, alas, did not buy enough time to let the shark pass un-jumped. The prospect of marriage loomed. Unable to conceive of a marriage with dramatic tension, the writers got creative.

Right before the wedding, Lois gets replaced by a frog-eating clone, and then, thanks to a bump on the head, she loses her memory and develops an alternate personality. Now, you might expect that the amnesia would be reversed by a second bump on the head, but you’d be mistaken, because, in a stunning subversion of the trope, a second bump on the head gives her more amnesia.

But the season’s not over yet! These were the Before Streaming days of 22 episodes a season, so even as Lois’s memory returned, the dreaded shark still swam within leaping distance, and the writing staff cowered in fear of this series-devouring predator. They had to dig deep, all the way down to the bottom of the barrel.

From there, they pulled out the Krypton card. Decades earlier, Superman writers discovered that if they were ever running low on ideas, they could simply un–blow up some part of Krypton and throw that at Superman. Thus, television viewers got a bunch of inexplicably telepathic Kryptonians and the revelation that Clark is a hereditary Kryptonian lord who’s needed to help the surviving Kryptonians avoid civil war.

If there was one thing that Lois & Clark was lacking, it was Kryptonian politics, so this did fill that void, in case anyone was looking to have it filled, and it pried our title characters apart long enough to carry them into the fourth season unwed.

Then, following a couple episodes of the obligatory evil Kryptonians trying to conquer the world, the writers finally gave in and allowed Lois and Clark to get married. Superman can’t be married by just any minister, of course. Perry White attempted two failed ceremonies, but even he didn’t suffice in the end.

No, in a stroke of whimsy, the series decided that Lois and Clark should be married by their guardian angel, an actual guardian angel who’s been watching over them their whole lives.

(We’re left to infer that guardian angels do not assist in matters of frog-eating clones. The More You Know.)

Post-wedding jitters immediately afflicted the writing staff. The fourth season was still young. There might still be too many episodes of marital bliss ahead. Fortunately, there remained one last milestone to delay: the honeymoon.So, as Lois and Clark are moments away from shattering the Cherry of Steel, someone knocks on their door.

I’ll give you three guesses who shows up.

Oh, who am I kidding? Like you need more than one.

Yeah, you guessed exactly right: H.G. Wells shows up to prevent Superman and Lois Lane from sleeping together. And yes, that’s the explicit, in-story motivation.

The author of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, moonlighting as a time-traveling honeymoon crasher, warns Lois and Clark of a centuries-old curse, in the writing staff’s last-ditch effort to save the show from jumping the shark too soon.

But those first two seasons are a fun time.

What worked and what didn’t work in the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies

I recently rewatched Star Trek: The Next Generation for the first time in a long time, and I concluded with a rewatch of the four TNG movies. Two of these movies hold up very well; two do not.

Star Trek: Generations has a solid theme about “the road not taken” and how that relates to time. The forward march of time devours the road we have taken, making it increasingly difficult to backtrack and course-correct as we get older, something both Kirk and Picard must come to terms with during the course of the movie.

Early on in the movie, Picard learns his brother and nephew died in a fire, and he’s now the last of his line. He struggles to keep his grief in check, and he questions his long-ago decision to not start a family. (As a nice contrast, this is at the same time Data is opening up a whole new world of emotions within himself, thanks to an emotion chip.)

The movie’s villain doesn’t accept any road not taken. He craves access to a Nexus where time is meaningless and all his desires will be granted. As the name implies, it’s all roads at once. In this place, both Kirk and Picard realize how it’s pointless to dwell on alternate paths. What matters is what they do now.

A lot of people don’t seem to like this one. It’s got only a 6.6 rating on IMDb at the moment. It’s not perfect (the Enterprise-B is a disgrace—heads must have rolled at Starfleet after that debacle), but I still like it a lot.

Star Trek: First Contact remains the best of the bunch, and it succeeds by balancing darkness and hope. Picard once again begins the movie in pain, as he’s still traumatized by his experience being assimilated by the Borg several years earlier. This wound has festered into a desire for vengeance, and he eventually must confront the fact that something so base and ugly lurks within him.

This is all juxtaposed with humanity’s advancement to the stars, as the crew time-travels back to just before the first warp-speed flight and first contact with aliens.

Just before that historic event, the world seems pretty bleak and perhaps headed deeper into a new Dark Age. Zefram Cochrane, the man whom history has recorded as ushering in a wondrous new era, is just a self-centered drunk who doesn’t nearly live up to his historical reputation. But once he sees the Earth from a vast distance for the first time, the seeds are planted for him to possibly become the great man future generations believe him to be.

Star Trek has always depicted a better future, but in First Contact, we’re shown what’s needed to maybe get there someday—how we have to wrestle with the worst aspects of ourselves and then aspire for something greater.

Star Trek: Insurrection is basically the cast and crew going, “Let’s just have fun with this one.” It is fun at times, but it all feels flat.

Picard does not start this movie in any pain. He’s actually in quite a good mood, and he continues to feel great throughout most of the movie. He even finds love and parts on amicable terms.

The main plot involves a Starfleet admiral teaming up with a group of aliens to forcibly relocate another group of aliens. They want to steal this planet’s regenerative properties for the supposedly greater good, but they’re so obviously in the wrong that it winds up just lowering the stakes.

If the Enterprise crew is going to defy Starfleet, it should feel brave and risky, with some uncertainty as to whether they’re really doing the right thing. But instead, it’s just, “Yeah, I would certainly hope they rebel against that.”

Generally, Star Trek—or any fiction—excels when it shows us how good, reasonable people can stumble down the wrong path. Deep Space Nine was especially great at this, such as when the Dominion War challenged the Federation’s values.

But there’s no complex morality in Insurrection. We don’t see a variety of sympathetic characters displaying multiple points of view and struggling to figure out what’s actually right.

In the TNG episode “The Drumhead,” for example, Worf fell for Space McCarthyism. It completely made sense for him to make that error, and it was all the more satisfying when he realized his error. “I, Borg” presented an interesting ethical conundrum when the crew brought a lone Borg drone on board and realized he still possessed some humanity, and characters changed their minds as the episode progressed. “Preemptive Strike” showed us Ensign Ro torn between her loyalty to Picard and her sympathy to the Maquis terrorists.

There’s no nuance in Insurrection, though. But it does have the best use of Gilbert & Sullivan in a Star Trek film, so that’s certainly a point in its favor.

Star Trek: Nemesis is basically the dumb action movie version of Star Trek. It starts to have an interesting idea about mirror-image versions of ourselves, with Picard confronting a younger clone of himself on an alien world, and Data discovering an android who’s an earlier prototype of himself. But neither Picard nor Data learns much of anything about themselves while confronting these doppelgängers.

There are some nice moments, but also so many missed opportunities, making the whole thing feel pointless.

Also, this is the second time Troi takes the helm, and the second time she crashes into something. But at least this time she crashes on purpose, so that’s progress.

Picard is in pretty good spirits for most of this movie, too, beginning the film as the proud best man at Riker and Troi’s wedding. He also gets to have some fun driving around an alien planet, plus additional fun piloting a shuttle through a ship during a daring escape. Except for at the end, he’s not especially troubled by much.

So, the formula seems to be:

Picard in pain = good Star Trek movie

Happy Picard = not a good Star Trek movie

A writer’s warning system

Writer’s block is often just our instincts warning us that we’re headed down the wrong path.

When I get stuck on a particular scene, I can usually backtrack a little bit and find something that needs fixing. It might be that the entire scene is misguided and needs to be scrapped in favor of an alternative approach, or maybe some details need to be added earlier to solidify the scene and give it life.

But one way or another, I’m struggling with the scene because I’m realizing something isn’t quite right. Once I figure that out, everything starts flowing again.

The Lamentable Plight of the Lonely Word

I hate it when I end a chapter with a single line stranded on a new page — or worse, a single word.

The poor lonely word sits there, cut off from the rest of its chapter, doomed to spend its days in isolation. Its existence becomes a torment. It knows its friends are all just on the other side of the page break, but a cruel twist of fate has separated it from everything it’s ever known, even the very subject it was born to serve.

Only a vast plain of Arctic whiteness stretches before the lonely word. Maybe there are more words beyond, with exciting new clauses to join. But the lonely word can never know, because it’s stuck here. Banished from civilization.

At least until I inevitably revise the chapter.

Morning Writing vs. Evening Writing: A Duel

When is the perfect time to write?

Trick question. But while there’s no perfect time, different parts of the day do have different advantages. I’ve tried many, and I’ve gone back and forth on which one feels best for me overall.

Morning writing looks best on paper. Just get up and get to work, before the daily concerns of life can derail your creative process. Wake up with a shower, eat a decent breakfast, and sit down at the computer with a clear, fresh mind. Knock out several pages, then tend to the rest of the day secure in the knowledge that you’ve already accomplished some solid writing.

But it doesn’t always go that smoothly, at least not in my case. I have a day job, so in order to give myself sufficient writing time, I would have to wake up around 5:30 a.m. or so. I tried that for a while. Some mornings went well. Others got off to a sluggish start, and by the time I was starting to build some decent momentum, it was time to stop and shift to my other work day. Then, after work, I was often so tired that I’d crash by about 9-9:30.

On the plus side, I got some of the best sleep of my life. But I’m really not wired to be a morning person. It’s nice to know that I can get myself up super-early on occasion, if the need arises, but it wasn’t optimal use of my time or energy levels.

Evening writing is a riskier affair. The pessimistic view is that you’re putting writing at the mercy of how the day went. A rough day can wreck the night, and there’s increased temptation to drink too much caffeine too late in the day. I’m certainly guilty of letting myself get derailed for a variety of reasons, but it’s always ultimately my own fault. When I focus on the key advantage of night writing, the results are much better.

That key advantage: I’ve already done absolutely everything else I needed to do that day. All other commitments are cleared out, and the book becomes the only thing I need to focus on.

This usually gets me a longer stretch of writing time compared to trying to cram in some morning writing. I’ll finish my day job, take a dinner break, read for an hour or so, and then there’s still plenty of night left for writing.

I can sneak some additional work in other parts of the day. An unfocused morning can still yield some productive brainstorming, and afternoons (on my days off, at least) are sometimes good for editing. But those are simply nice bonuses. For me, in my subjective experience, nights are when the best work tends to happen.

Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever tried writing at 3 a.m. Maybe that’s the top-secret perfect writing time?

So here’s why I write…

I recently reread George Orwell’s famous essay, “Why I Write.” In it, he ascribes four primary motives to writers: egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Different writers will feel a stronger pull from one or two than the others, and the precise balance might shift over a lifetime, but those four motives drive much of the prose that exists and will exist throughout the world. I’d be lying if I claimed immunity.

Looking at my superhero novel The Flying Woman, I can see those four motives playing roles of varying sizes.

Ego certainly factors into the equation. I would like to think otherwise, but that would be self-delusion. There’s a line in the musical Hamilton that goes, “God help and forgive me, I want to build something that’s gonna outlive me.” And yes, I’d like that, too. I won’t live forever, and I can’t take any books with me, but I can leave them behind and hope they endure.

Along those lines, I also wanted to write the best superhero novel ever. There are certainly many good and even great superhero prose novels out there, but which has the reputation as being the pinnacle of the genre in this medium? I’m not saying I succeeded—that’s ultimately up to the readers, not the writer. But after a lifetime of reading superhero comics, I wanted to put my own stamp on the genre.

Aesthetic enthusiasm is more a motivation for editing than writing, but I do certainly appreciate aesthetics and value their importance. I’m happy to take the time to ensure the correct word is always in the correct place, and unbroken walls of text often look plain ugly. Dialogue must always “sound” right and flow with a natural rhythm.

So there’s some aesthetic enthusiasm in the mix, but I wouldn’t call it my reason for writing in the first place.

When I was a newspaper reporter, the historical impulse was by far my strongest motive for that particular type of writing. My job was to present people and events as they were, and to provide readers with enough information to help them form their own conclusions. It was never my place to tell them what to think.

With fiction, and especially superhero fantasy fiction, I’m obviously not presenting factual accounts or even slice-of-life drama. But I do strive to present human nature as it is—the good, the bad, and the ugly. And stories of superheroes and supervillains can tell us quite a bit about ourselves. It’s no surprise that superhero origin stories are often great coming-of-age stories, too.

In The Flying Woman, a young woman acquires powers she never expected, and she has to figure out how to become this perfect superhero even though she knows she’s nowhere near perfect. Effectively, she has to figure out how to become the adult she needs to be. The development of a superhero, then, is another way to show how a person matures.

So maybe that’s not quite a “historical” impulse, but it’s adjacent.

And then there’s political purpose. I generally steer clear of this, as I believe partisan politics and fiction don’t mix (though perhaps that is a type of a political opinion).

Writing a female superhero lead might get me involved in current issues of representation in entertainment. Maybe I’m just looking through rose-colored glasses thanks to a youth of reading X-Men and watching Star Trek, but to me, a female superhero already seemed every bit as natural as a male superhero. As I type that, I worry that I sound like I’m pandering, when that’s the last thing I want to do.

In my mind, the way to reduce any disparities in representation is simply by writing (for example) a female lead in a matter-of-fact way, without any overt agenda. I wrote Miranda as a person first and foremost, not a “strong female superhero protagonist.” I focused less on issues that are unique to women today and more on issues that are common to both men and women—fear of failure, accepting responsibility, new responsibilities conflicting with previous ambitions, striving to live up to others’ expectations, and so on—the universal, timeless issues where we can find common ground, not the contemporary identity politics that can divide us … the broader human nature that I mentioned earlier.

So I wrote a non-political female superhero. The statement is that it shouldn’t be a statement. Is that political in a roundabout way? Anti-politics as a type of politics? I’ll let others decide.

That wraps up Orwell’s four motives, but I’ll add one of my own: the joy of creation, of building something new.

Sure, I’ve drawn on elements already present in the culture—established conventions of the superhero genre, themes others have previously tackled, tried-and-true plot structure, and so on. But I assembled those pieces in my own unique way, to create something that only I would have created.

There’s nothing like that thrill, though maybe this is just another form of egoism. Who am I to argue with Orwell?

Originally posted at Silver Dagger Book Tours.

A ‘Terrific’ Prologue

Prologues are tricky. They must abide by a certain set of rules: be concise, don’t drown the reader in tedious information, make sure something happens, and adopt a viewpoint other than your protagonist’s. Basically, a prologue must act like the teaser before a television show’s opening credits.

I wasn’t originally planning on using a prologue in Terrific, my upcoming novel featuring the world’s greatest superhero — Mighty Woman! But then I realized it could provide an effective way of introducing the villain and laying the foundation for her arc.

The results are below. It’s still rough, unedited, and very much a work in progress, and you may well spot a typo or five. But it is evidence that, yes, I do remain hard at work on this thing. Plus, I feel like sharing something. So here we go…

*****

Copyright 2016 Daniel R. Sherrier

Terrific

Prologue

Doctor Death Junior was a cackler. This child who had barely entered her teens deigned herself worthy of succeeding the greatest genius who ever lived. Dumb luck alone granted her the opportunity.

Graffiti was her hobby, and a police officer had caught her in the act of “painting” beneath a highway bridge. While eluding arrest, she stumbled upon Doctor Death’s subterranean lair, where an unavoidable lack of maintenance had degraded the security system, granting the juvenile delinquent access to the arsenal of a superior intellect. But acquiring his tools did not mean she acquired a sufficient understanding of his mission. Therefore, Doctor Death Junior became one of the ridiculous ones, yet another narcissistic super-villain who wreaked pointless havoc for no grander purpose than her own inane entertainment. She purloined the infamous name of Doctor Death for escapist fantasy.

Clarissa needed to kill the pretender. Her father would have wanted it that way. Continue reading

Do women or men write better?

I never gave much thought to the question, but maybe a helpful infographic will come along and shed some light…

Oh, look. Here’s one, courtesy of your friendly neighborhood grammar checker, Grammarly.

MenvsWomen_Writers_infographicHonestly, I usually stay away from the battle of the sexes. (I come from a female-dominated family, majored in theatre, and work in an otherwise all-female office. I’d lose.) The above can be a fun statistical experiment, but it ultimately emphasizes generalizations and de-emphasizes the outliers. Lots of men and women are great writers. Lots of men and women are terrible writers. The bottom-line data says 59 percent of men and women believe women write better, which isn’t a huge margin and suggests gender is not a great predictor of a writer’s quality.

The data on sentences did jump out at me, however. Over 75 percent of women are more likely to write long, descriptive sentences vs. about 34 percent of men. That’s a statistically significant difference, and it backs up a trend in my dialogue. My female characters tend to be more verbose or prone to rambling, whereas my male characters use fewer words. Just compare Serissa and Rip in RIP. But there are exceptions, like the terse Mariana in Earths in Space. Don’t want to neglect the outliers.

I love writing those chatty women, probably because I’m not at all chatty. It’s a nice change of pace.

I don’t know if women or men are better writers. I don’t think the question matters all that much. But one thing I do know—men in general can do a better job of writing female characters.

Trust me, guys. It’s fun. And it’s not as hard as you might think, because you’re still just writing people…just potentially chattier people who are more likely to write long, descriptive sentences (but not necessarily!).

Hermione could’ve been a great lead in ‘Harry Potter’

Buzzfeed posted an article titled “If Hermione Were The Main Character In Harry Potter.”Hermione-Granger-hermione-granger-26743720-960-1280

When I saw the headline, I was expecting a story about a muggle-born witch rising out of humble beginnings to achieve greatness no one ever would have expected of her. Maybe Hermione would even going so far as to defy the prophecies surrounding “The Boy Who Lived” that everyone around her was taking so much stock in, and she’d be the one to defeat Voldemort, not Harry, because she built herself into a person capable of doing so, to heck with whatever was preordained when they were babies.

That could be a great self-made person story — and it would serve the cause of gender equality better than that Buzzfeed article about Hermione vs. The Patriarchy (though I don’t recall the actual Harry Potter series being sexist — after all, it gave us Hermione).

I get what the article is trying to do, but if that were an actual series, it would read like the feminist equivalent of Atlas Shrugged. On-the-nose preaching just doesn’t work as entertainment, and preaching doesn’t change minds. Show, don’t tell.

Rules

I just started re-watching Veronica Mars, and I noticed something about the pilot.vmars1

It’s loaded with exposition, voice-over narration, and flashbacks — three things screenwriting experts say don’t do. And yet it works. It’s not the show’s greatest episode, but it succeeds in getting us interested in this world and situation (well, enough of us to make a movie possible several years later).

On the other hand, when the Green Lantern movie opened with voice-over exposition, I knew we were in trouble.

The lesson: Break rules skillfully, but do not break rules awkwardly. (And people say adverbs never amount to anything.)