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11:59 a.m. - 2011-08-30
Hunger Games

The train tracks across the street from my house are a spur line, mostly used to change engines and move cars out of the way to be picked up later by a different train. Not a lot of train traffic and we're used to the noise anyhow. Today, however, the line's been going non-stop. Whistles, hooting, bangs and crashes, the train yard that's about a mile thataway down past the general store is a hive of activity today. Metro-North, the commuter railroad, lost a whopping swath of track further up the line and now they're scrambling. I've never seen commuter train cars by my house, it's always freight, but today everything that runs on rails is going past. I can't imagine the chaos and the zillions of decisions that are going on. Trains aren't like trucks or buses, they just can't be re-routed down any old street or pulled off into a handy parking lot, the task of figuring out how to get everything where it needs to be when there's 65 miles of track washed out is crazy. Like solving a Rubik's Cube- each new step forward requires undoing all the previous ones and then reassembling with the new move at the end. Freight is easier, unless it's dangerous or perishable those cars can be shunted off somewhere to wait, but there's still 100,000+ commuters to get in and out of the city and they wouldn't be too pleased to sit on a siding for 3 days while the tracks are cleared of other trains.

I do not envy the train companies today.

Late to the party as usual, I finally read 'Hunger Games'. Read? Gobbled is a better word. Swallowed it in about three hours. And ever since I've been thinking about what makes one book an easy read and what makes another a chore and a bore. It's a lot less to do with subject matter and intended audience than I'd thought. Take the spin-off series from the Little House books. The ones about Laura's great-grandmother Martha and her grandmother Charlotte were written by Melissa Wiley. I love them and it's a grief to me the series were cut off early by really stupid marketing decisions. Yet the ones about Caroline, Laura's mother, are horrible books! I tried the first one and it made me want to stab myself in the head with a fork. Anything to distract me from the pain of Maria D. Wilkes' awful prose. Celia Wilkins took over after book 4 and the one of hers I tried was just as bad. Unreadable.

Now. Same target audience. Similar subject matter. Same story arc for each series- start when the main character is 6 or so then chronicle her life until adulthood. The formula established by Laura of mixing descriptions of everyday life with a book specific plot and her Pa's stories was kept up. Yet Ms Wiley's books are a delight and the Caroline books are clunky junk. Why?

Then I got to thinking about role playing games. I've never played the actual D&D, but I played plenty others. Cyberpunk, Thief, Vampyre, Werewolves, Phoenix, and mash-ups of some and all. Lots of fun. Gamed with the same gang for years. There were additions and guests and some casual players who drifted in and out, but the core group remained the same. Our usual GM was quick on his feet and surprising. Never had a codex or a defined campaign, but it worked. He played a tune and we danced. More street theater and wild improv than a game to be run through and won, we always had a blast when P was the game master. Then one of the other long-term players put in for running a campaign, he wanted at shot at GM. Okey-doke. We gave him his shot.

Opening night we met at my house, about 15 of us sitting around the dining room table (with the leaves in my old dining table sat 20, it was huge) and in came M the new boss. He had a briefcase and an accordion file folder a foot thick. M had done some serious planning. We settled in and began. 45 minutes later we staged a mutiny. M's game was insanely boring. He insisted we go through every jot and tiddle of every stinking activity. No making fires until after we'd gathered firewood and rolled to see if we had flint and steel and if the wood was wet and…BLECH! The table erupted in hoots and jeers and loud fake snores. Poor M was shocked. His exquisitely planned game! All those hours of plotting! To be booed off the table in less than an hour must have hurt like hell. But we told him that we gamed to escape, to be entertained, to get away from real life and its endless To-Do list. Nobody wants to stand in line at the DMV when role-playing. What's the point? Enough already with the chores and the f-ing firewood. Let's play!!!

Poor hurt M struggled to lighten up, but he was a chores kind of guy. Pedantic and leaden of mind and speech in real life, his game was even more stodgy and boring than he was. M's lack of verve didn't matter much as a player, we let him nuts-n-bolts his little heart out while we thieved, squabbled, conned and flirted around him. But as GM? Man, did he suck. Even his 'clever' traps and set-ups were boring. Oh wow, my shoes went missing while I stomped laundry in a stream. Zzzzzzzz.

So obviously getting bogged down in detail is a story killer, but the most fascinating thing in the Little House books is finding out all the details of life back then. How to make cheese and spin flax. What they ate and how it was cooked. What they wore. All that jazz. Otherwise they're just a bunch of books about girls who go to school and eventually grow boobs and get married, BFD.

Word choice, imagination, balancing enough background and detail to be interesting against the need to move the story along, all of those are equally important, but it still doesn't explain that spark. The way a good story can pick you up and swoop you off with it. Guess if I could figure that out and put it into a formula anybody could follow I'd become a gazillionaire. Or run with the best-selling big dogs myself and write books that people gobble. Sigh…

Oh well. Off to B&N to buy the Hunger Games sequels. ~LA

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