Saturday, April 19, 2014

How Not to Write with Starcraft: Liberty's Crusade

Hey y'all.  I'm here to review another Starcraft book.  Don't worry, I'll cut back on the Starcraft after this one.  Well, mainly because we don't have any more at the bookstore where we work, but y'know.  I like Starcraft enough to comment even on its bad stuff.

Me and you, Starcraft, always and forever.  But for now --

Starcraft: Liberty's Crusade!  Yeah, I know, one of the most pretentious titles ever.  I was going to say "most pretentious", but biography titles tend to be pretty horrible.  I'm sure there's at least a dozen worse than this. Though what the fudge is with that cover picture?  Very lazy to use already generated art.  Probably not Jeff Grubb's choice, though.  The other pictures in the series (yes, it's technically a series with Shadow of the Xel'Naga and Speed of Darkness), are likewise non-unique.  Although I still like Speed of Darkness' cover.

In any case, I read Liberty's Crusade several years ago, and got so disgusted with it that I told the members of a Starcraft forum that no one should ever pay for it.  One guy responded that I should give it to him if that's the case.  So I mailed it to him for free.  Thing is, that was many years ago, and now I have become a fully fledged nitpicker supreme with a special talent for ranting and raving about writing problems.  And I want another victim.  Jeff Grubb should do the trick.

Oh, and in case I forgot to mention it before, I do blame Blizzard for many of the novelists' failures.  It's Blizzard's property, so one can expect them to hold the reigns a little tightly.  Now, in William C. Dietz's case (author of Heaven's Devils), I blame him more than Blizzard.  I've peeked at his other books, and his narrative is still terrible.  As for Jeff Grubb?  We'll see.

I wasn't going to make this a How Not to Write entry.  That title is reserved for books that are very bad, very boring, and have more to do with writing errors than concepts -- that the book is bad in such a way that talking about it can help a potential writer.  I was going to cut this book a little more slack, but the thing is, the more I read it, the more I remembered why it was such a difficult read the first go-round.

Okay, let's begin.  There's spoilers, but since Starcraft itself is a spoiler for this book, don't worry about it.

Liberty's Crusade is about the reporter Michael Liberty (gah, cheesy name!), who ends up by coincidence following all the important characters as they go through the first Terran missions in Starcraft.  He starts out as a Confederate reporter assigned to report on military activities, and ends up finding Raynor and company.  He then leaves behind a holographic transmission of everything that happened.

You might think that's a premise that works, only it doesn't.

----- Don't write a purposeless book.

Thing is, Liberty's Crusade is a re-telling of the first Terran missions of Starcraft.  Generally speaking, only the people who play Starcraft will be interested in reading the books, and we already know the story.  This means that the point of the book is to convey information and story that is new and interesting enough to keep us reading.  Secondly, since we know that Mengsk is still in power at the end of Brood War and the public apparently doesn't know how nuts Mengsk is at the beginning of Starcraft II, we know that Liberty's hologram couldn't have been used.  The story is incapable of being canon, robbing it of the whole point.

A simple retelling or novelization would be fine were it told from the perspective of one of the main characters, such as Raynor, Kerrigan, or the unnamed person that we are when we play the game.  Heh, imagine if it were told from Mengsk's perspective.  Any such option would give us the readers a new perspective and clues into the personality of a character we know, and that would be cool.  Only that's hampered by having a new and unfamiliar character take the reigns.

Okay, so that means Jeff Grubb has to make Liberty interesting.  Unfortunately, everything about Liberty is sacrificed to re-tell the story of Starcraft.  Which we already know.  Liberty is never given the chance to be his own character or tell his own story.  What characterization he gets is at the beginning, before he joins up with the primary characters, but he's one of those rebellious reporter "bad boys", and bad boys are so played out in today's culture that it lacks any interest, and Liberty's not even a better example of the cliche. It doesn't help that we never learn anything about Liberty's background, besides that some old families hate his guts.

I still think it's dumb that all the Starcraft novels were made canon, by the by.  It's almost never a good idea to do that to any universe.  The only one that can really get away with that is Doctor Who, and that's because each Doctor is so different and all the adventures are so everywhere that none of the stories ever need to match up anyway.  Even then, I'm sure they aren't all canon.

To be fair, this is probably more Blizzard's fault.  They clearly wanted a novelization of their game, thus narrowing the book's purpose.  Sure, this could have been interesting, but the whole idea of Michael Liberty really screwed it up.  So the problem with the basic premise of this book is the fault of whoever decided he was key to the story.

Instead:  If you're writing a novelization of a game or a movie, give people a reason to want it.  Explain details previously ambiguous, fill in gaps of the plot, refer to what characters off-screen are doing, or introduce new, fun characters.  And even if you're writing something original, remember to ask yourself why they're reading your book.  They're not doing it to donate money to you or inflate your ego, for sure.

----- Don't make your narrative question itself.

Now, I understand if you have a more casual or vocal narrative, as if you are sitting in a room with the reader and are telling them the story yourself.  That's a legitimate way to tell a story, and when done well, works well.  Yet it's an easy thing to screw up.  Good narrative should be as invisible as possible, and moments of the writer correcting his own descriptions of whatever is going on really jolt the reader out of the story. Particularly when it's the first lines on the first page.

The man in the tattered coat stands in a room of shadows, bathed in light.  No, that is wrong: the figure is not illuminated by the light, but rather is light incarnate, light folded and curved in on itself in a holographic replica of its originator.

I really did want to give this book a chance, but that put a damper on it right away.  The reader is imagining the story during that first sentence, and then all of a sudden the second rebukes the image in the reader's mind and goes in another direction.  Come on, the entire point of choosing a book versus a game or movie is letting the reader come up with his own view of a story.  Don't punish your readers for choosing words over videos.

Instead:  Gimmicks in writing are tricky.  It's usually best to avoid inserting one's "vocal" comments in a story, but it can be done well.  CS Lewis sometimes acted as though he is telling a story that was previously told to him by a main character.  Usage of a narrator can work so long as you aren't pretentious.  First person narrative is a bit more popular these days.  Granted, it's easy to mess up when doing so, as it feels pretentious to the reader when you appear to be inserting yourself in a story.  Just don't contradict what you've told your audiences before.  

----- A person is similar to those they hang out with.  In other words, don't ignore your protagonist's friends.

Early on, Liberty is assigned by his network to go do reports on the Confederate army, and he has to be with the soldiers and send back propaganda pieces.  I know that reporters hate military people, but it's weird that we learn almost nothing about these people.  In fact, the only marine we get close to is a happy-go-lucky resocialized girl who just loooves the Confederacy.  Who is also a murderer.

It's pretty disturbing how Liberty seems comforted by this.    This woman apparently took men home and killed them for fun, then the Confederacy rewired her brain so she'd be good for combat.  Yeah.  And apparently that's less freaky than someone who is really cheerful.  To make it worse, later on Liberty can't handle shooting another person.  You'd think if he was the sort of guy who felt calm around a murderer, shooting someone who shot at him first would be no big deal.

They kill her off fairly early, so readers are left with a feeling of unease and wondering why she was there in the first place.  She's not there to make a comment on resocialization, she has no relation to the main characters or relevance to the plot of Starcraft.  Flavor characters are fine, sure, but this one was pretty questionable.

Instead:  Put secondary characters in that have specific reasons for being friends with your protagonist. Perhaps they have a quality that your main character wishes he had, or they're able to provide the protagonist something they wouldn't ordinarily have.  Or maybe they're the protagonist's only friend.  Say without saying that the protagonist wants or is obligated to hang out with somebody, and that they continue to pal around for a reason.

This is apparently a rendered version of Liberty that was supposed to be in SCII.  Urk.

---- Don't use a character to express how you feel about another character.

Mengsk struck Liberty as just another politician.  For all the ghosts that supposedly haunted the man, his motivations were as apparent as those of the lowest ward heeler on Tarsonis.

Excuse you, Liberty?  How then did the ever-honest Raynor and psychic-powered Kerrigan ever get fooled by this mofo, then?  Jim never had problems with calling out other people's bullcrap, and since rednecks by nature are distrusting of authority, Mengsk has to work really hard to get someone like that on his side.  Do I even need to get into how Kerrigan can read minds?  Obviously Mengsk fooled her because he was really fooling himself -- in his heart Mengsk believes that he is noble, good, and important.  If he were just some politician, Kerrigan would see his machinations.  Quite frankly, Liberty should be open to Mengsk, as reporters are vulnerable to personal connections and stroked egos.  In this book, Mengsk is not only nice to Liberty, but sympathizes when Liberty's news clips are used for propaganda.  Thus, Libs should really like him.

I swear, is there one writer in the Starcraft universe who treats canon characters correctly?

This is what I mean.  If you met Arcturus Mengsk, what would you do?  Maybe slap him around?  Accuse him of something?  Pretend to be nice until you could get away and talk to a reporter about him?  You're thinking about all these things because you've seen what he's done.  You know he betrayed Kerrigan to the swarm and you know he'll do anything for power.  A random person?  Nothing.  They don't know anything about him.  They won't slap him around or attempt to stop him because as far as they know, there's nothing to stop.  And forget Starcraft 2; no tyrant who isn't a complete moron would allow the media that much leeway or make such very obvious propaganda.

Basically put, if you're going to write a Starcraft fanfiction, write characters who genuinely believe that Mengsk is good, or that he's better than an alternative, or that he's some wise person making logical sacrifices to save humanity.  When you create a character, ask yourself how much they would know about a canon character.  Don't make them more inuitive than is logical or otherwise magically suspect Mengsk isn't who he says he is.  That reduces tension, and likewise reader interest.  Sure, the character can find out later about Mengsk, or have a pre-existant hatred for authority, but there's no way for the average citizen to know Mengsk's dirty laundry.

Jeff Grubb, however, has Liberty suspect both Sons of Korhal leader Mengsk and General Duke for no real reason.  Sure, Duke is a gruff guy that cares more about survival than good, but that doesn't automatically make him evil.  A character needs to discover the depth of Duke's survival instinct before they realize how it will affect his behavior.  Sure, intuition works in the real world, but in fiction it more often than not comes across as cheap, particularly when the reader is already familiar with the bad guy in question.

For all his goings-on about the baddies, Jeff Grubb doesn't do all that well with the good guys.  Think about the characteristics of Kerrigan and Raynor.  Jim's a hardened redneck that generally means well, but isn't afraid to do the hard thing if need be.  Kerrigan (in human form) is a naive girl desperate for someone to trust yet guards herself just in case.  Neither personality comes out when they speak.  Instead it's generic psychic girl and random country dude.  And I don't care about either of them.

Seriously, at one point Jim "curses" by saying "Samuel J. Houston on a bicycle".  Now, I understand that maybe the book wants to avoid the worst swear words.  I'm fine with that.  However, when Jim Raynor wants to swear, he swears.  He does not say convoluted bullcrap.  When I first read the book, this is the point where I got really mad.  Who even is Sam Houston anyway, and why does Raynor care?  Most facepalm point in the book.  And Raynor doesn't say "my pleasure" or "sir".  Yeesh.

Jeff Grubb really should have written this from Mengsk's or Duke's perspective.  Grubb has a fairly good handle on the bad guys, and he should write what he knows.  Then again, he seems to think that Mengsk would own up to using other people as tools while he's in front of a reporter, so maybe not.

- Readers tend to notice when you use the word "man" three times in six lines.

"I thought you were quitting, man." Rourke said.
"Come on, man."
As soon as Mike had Rourke's cigarettes jammed in his shirt pocked he was up and out of the cafe, his own press tags still bouncing on the table.
"They breed them crazy on Tarsonis, man." Rourke observed.

Instead: Play around with your words.  Give smaller characters unique characteristics that influences the way they talk.  Even if you don't tell the audience their backgrounds, their natures show through their words. And the readers won't be bored reading your dialogue. For that matter, this is science fiction.  It's possible to create unique words and phrases, then say it's future vernacular. 

-----  Don't put quotes and character journals before chapters.  I'm looking at you too, RA Salvatore.

For the record, I really, really hate it when there's italicized text before each chapter.  Y'know there's these little self-righteous diatribes before each one where Liberty says pretentious nonsense about what's going to happen next, and they add absolutely zero to the story.  And he pretties it up by calling it the "Liberty Manifesto".  Yurk.

Instead: Look, italicized text or quotes before chapters works only in nonfiction.  It's because the text or quotes are observations of real world events, and add flavor to the straightforward narrative of the topic at hand.  A fiction book is not the real world.  It's already a collection of texts and quotes based on the worldview of the writer in question.  Everything in the book referring to reality is colored by the view of the writer, and requires no further observation. 

Okay, before I continue, let me say some good things about this book.  Before the part where Liberty confronts Duke, the story was going an interesting direction by having Liberty meet the Confederate army, which we see next to nothing of in canon Starcraft or fanfiction.  The narrative, while wonky at points, is nowhere near as bad as other writers I've read.  It tries too hard to be quirky, but that's no big deal.  

Uh....good stuff...uh....

The idea of a holographic message was alright, and I like that in the end infested Kerrigan watches it. Granted, I'm not sure she would care all that much, but it makes for a cute idea.

Meh, good stuff is too hard.  Back to the bad!

----- If you write a Mary Sue (there's a time and a place), don't insert her into official conversations.

Shoving Michael Liberty into already established Starcraft dialogues is something the noobiest of noobs do on   Instead of giving the established stuff more interest, it makes the whole thing a boring farce.  If a conversation existed in the original fiction, don't go back and add in statements from outside characters.  And why would a reporter be allowed to butt in when Mengsk is trying to speak to Duke after the latter is rescued from the Zerg?  Raynor I understand, as he's the one going to rescue Duke, but where does a reporter get the right?  And holy crap, if Kerrigan is with her last words calling out to BFF Jimmy Raynor, don't add that she calls out to some lame OC.

Instead:  It all boils down to what I said before.  If you want your audience to buy your product, you have to offer them something they don't have.  Give new information, new details, and new dialogue.  There's nothing new about rehashing a conversation your reader already knows and dragging it down with an OC.  If you want to quote established conversations (this applies to real-world conversations as well), then either let it play out for dramatic emphasis in the way it relates to your story, or quote only a tiny piece.  Or don't quote at all.

Oh, and this is sort of unrelated, but avoid quoting song lyrics.  Even if you're just writing a fanfiction and copyright isn't a big deal (then again, I don't know the details), it's cheesy most of the time.

I don't need to go on.  Repeating myself gets old, and the real problem with this book is that it offers absolutely nothing.  It's the most boring thing I've ever read.  It adds nothing to the Starcraft universe, and doesn't even tell Starcraft in an interesting way.  The characters are boring, the narrative is boring, and the plot's walking down the side of a busy road.  Yawn.  Y'know, as convoluted and all over the place as Keith DeCandido's story was, I wanted to finish that book, and I did.  The dramatics of the plot made up for the narrative.

The moral of the story is, your ideas are more important than the grammar and style of your book.  In a perfect world you'd have good both, but people can tolerate bad presentation if the concepts are good. That's why low-graphics games from the nineties are still popular, Hollow Fields is a fun manga, and people still enjoy noobish stories on  As opposed to 2012, the Star Wars prequels, Tron Legacy, etc., whose visuals are expensive but plots are dumber than a bag of bricks.  Ho-hum.

Bah.  Well, that's the sum total of all the Starcraft books at my work.  I'll have to find something else to rant about than Starcraft, I guess.

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