It’s All in the Reflexes

I’ve been reading The Official Making of Big Trouble in Little China and finding it tremendously comforting. I bought the book because it’s about my favorite movie of all time, but I’m finding it comforting because it’s reminding me to swing as wide as I can while telling the best story I can, and then let go and let the Girls in the Basement take it from there.

Reading through the different interviews, I started to make connections between my book and John Carpenter’s story. They were there already–the best dish at the Chinese restaurant next door to the bar is Eggs Shen and then there’s the Six Demon Box–but remembering the movie in detail made me realize that so many of the things I loved about it were things I’ve been trying to avoid in the book. Like the way the movie wholeheartedly embraces the completely batshit insanity of the story. There’s no place where Carpenter steps back and says, “Well, wait, let’s get a grip here.” Instead, it’s all in the reflexes.

So I love it that the hero of the movie, Jack Burton, is actually the clueless comic relief sidekick to the real hero, Wang Chi. I love it that the heroine, Gracie Law, is a kickass, smart-mouthed lawyer who is such a force of nature that Jack walks away from her in the end without kissing her because he knows he can’t handle her. I love it that Jack is over his head from the beginning–“I’m a reasonable guy. But, I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things”–and just goes with it. I love how the movie just gets crazier and crazier and it doesn’t matter because Our Team–Wang Chi, Jack Burton, Gracie Law, Egg Shen, Margo Litzenberger, Eddie Lee–are goin’ into the Wing Kong Trading Company to rescue Mao Yin, and not even the Three Storms, the Sewer Demon, and the Wild Man monster are going to stop them. I love it that Gracie leaves a lipstick print on Jack when she kisses him and Jack doesn’t know it. I love it that Wang Chi wiggles his eyebrows before he takes out one of the Storms. I love it that Jack fires off his gun above his like a macho hero and brings down the ceiling on himself. I love Gracie Law kicking the bad guy off the stage, and the gang in the elevator feeling kind of invincible, and I love Jack missing LoPan when he throws the knife at him at the end, and LoPan catching it and throwing it back and how that plays out. I love this freaking movie more than any other I’ve ever watched, and I think it’s because it just doesn’t give a damn whether you like it or not, it’s gonna go over here and do this demented and delightful thing. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted in my own writing.

I had that in the beginning because I didn’t know anything about the romance genre. I knew I loved Georgette Heyer, but I’d never read a Harlequin, never talked about romance online, never really understood that the genre was more than the whole bodice ripper thing. I wanted to write mysteries, but my brain didn’t work that way, so I tried romance. Stuff happened and I sold a book to Harlequin, not realizing that my editor was taking a big chance on the book. She told me later that the day the book came out, she went into her office and shut the door and put her head down on her desk because she was sure her career was over. At the next editorial meeting, the senior editor said, “We’ve received thirty letters about Manhunting,” and she thought, That’s it, I’m fired, except they were all good letters, asking for more stories like that one. She knew we were crossing a line, I didn’t. That’s why I could cross it. I couldn’t see the damn line.

Starting like that gave me permission to cross the line again, helped by the fact that the line moved and romance became a much more open genre. But I’ve also gotten clobbered for going over the edge, and the more success I’ve had, the harder it’s been to trust my reflexes. It’s ironic: success makes you doubt yourself. Should I be doing this? This is going to annoy a lot of people, disappoint a lot more who are still hoping for Bet Me Again. What the hell am I thinking?

But that misses the point. I’ve been writing for almost thirty years, I have a lot of the basics pretty much down now so that I can fix damn near anything in a rewrite. What I can’t fix is the spark that a good story needs, that excitement under the surface, that sense that there’s a wild ride coming at you. Writing batshit insane stories can be terrible without craft and skill, but writing with only craft and skill can result in terrible stories, too. I need to embrace Jack Burton’s philosophy: “Like I told my last wife, I says, “Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it’s all in the reflexes.” I can see pretty far, and the farther I go in a story, the more I see. So now . . .

I’m thinking that the batshit stuff I’ve been avoiding is the story I want to tell. I’m thinking about the first time Jack Burton throws that knife and because he’s overthinking it, he misses. I’m thinking about the last time Jack Burton throws that knife. I’m thinking it’s all in the reflexes.

Damn, I love that movie.

30 thoughts on “It’s All in the Reflexes

    1. Well, he does. With Dennis Dun and Kim Cattrall and Victor Wong and Kate Burton . . .
      It’s a team story.

  1. That movie was the best. I remember sitting in the theater with my husband and both of us laughing so hard.

    I’m glad to hear you say Jack wasn’t the hero, because the movie makes more sense to me with him as the goofy sudekick with the big heart. And his buddy the hero is so often busy fighting with a high level of martial artistry and just going about the mission with focused skill.

    Reflexes are amazing things.

    I’m just guessing that worrying about what people will want to read and buy would be crazy-making. And not fun.

    I hope you are able to get carried away with your story.

  2. Yes, it’s fun, with a sense of abandonment to the story that doesn’t ever apologize. But in retrospect we can guess that out from the first scene. The thing that I love about it is both how Jack thinks he’s the hero and never figures out he isn’t and also how the knife thing is done so completely not in the Hollywood way. But part of why this works for BTiLC is because at its heart it’s a fairy tale. (It’s also why The Princess Bride works so well — Cary Elwes’ book As You Wish is well worth a read) And to me your best work has that going for it. (I was introduced to you through Dogs and Goddesses) Theory can’t replace idea, and so many folks miss that. (Ever hear a symphony by Walter Piston, the scholar who wrote a music theory text that is the foundation of most of the modern textbooks? If not, consider yourself lucky, as watching a cliff face erode is more interesting.) Einstein said it best, both in his quote of “Imagination is more important than knowledge” and the tale I read recently where he was talking to a group of children visiting his lab. One kid asked, “Mr. Einstein, how do we get to be as smart as you?” He responded, “Read fairy tales.” Another kid asked, “Okay, then, how do we get to be smarter than you?” Albert responded, in his inimitable way, “Read more fairy tales.” Jenny, write the story you want to write. Your communication skills are strong enough that at least for some of us it’s going to translate. And there’s also the editing process. (Both BTiLC and TPB went through a lot of edits to get on the screen) You’ve created enough goodwill among your readers for us to give it an honest chance, and there’s something fun about a story that grabs you, stuffs you into a car on The Dragon, and rockets up the first hill with no stopping until it’s over. Some of my favorite books, like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, have that wonderful combination of constant forward motion coupled with enough interesting turns so the changes aren’t telegraphed. I don’t often re-read books, because there’s so many of them to read for the first time before my time is up here, but the few that take me on that kind of ride are the ones more likely to get a second read from me. Write something like that, letting it loose and leaving the formula behind when you’re not using it to set up another step into the unexpected, and you’ll win a lot of folks who want more of the novelty and less of the comfort than the formula books deliver. Finally, remember that we aren’t in Kansas anymore — publishing today isn’t what it was even ten years ago, more people are reading and a *lot* more are listening to audio books. I suspect this trend is going to cause some stronger drives to effective dialog in works as more folks hear it instead of processing it through the visual cortex. But I digress. Jenny, I can’t speak for anyone else, though I suspect I’m not alone in this, but I trust you to deliver an effective story that has craft and internal consistency. So make sure the bar is in your lap, take a deep breath, and get ready for that first hill. In the end The Dragon will tell us it’s all good.

  3. Yes!! Now you’re cooking!

    (Of course, that comment comes from a woman who put an FBI agent whose cover was a shape-shifting alien in her second book. Just so you know where it’s coming from.)

  4. Hey, I’m over “Bet Me.” Follow your wildest impulses and we’ll catch you with our wild reflex. Come on, now.

  5. Oh, gosh, I’ve been enjoying so much batshit crazy art over the weekend. There’s this Japanese movie called “Too Young To Die” which is just out on DVD (but not in subtitles at all) about a 17-year-old who dies and goes to Japanese hell — which aside from being a very, very traditional Japanese hell, it also has a huge infusion of modern Japanese death metal and a side-serving of punk. Absolutely hilarious! Which is not something I usually say about movies featuring teen death and heavy metal. I thought I was going to read on the computer while keeping my family company around the kitchen table, but I got sucked in during the first 90 seconds, and watched the whole damn (hah!) thing. So clever, and there was a happy ending.

    I also finished reading an anthology of gay fantasy, and there was one story which was batshit crazy. Zombie hamsters. My god. It was absolutely hilarious, but you could feel the writer was holding onto the story by the very tips of zir fingertips (I can’t remember if the writer was a her or a zir), just trying to get the crazy down on the page without falling off the edge.

    The reason why I love Bet Me is that it has all sorts of crazy elements — I was constantly surprised at the turns the story took — but there is no sense of authorial mania. Every bit of glorious insanity is revealed bit by bit by a firm hand — even that crazy ending with SPOILER doughnuts and bondage. It was so excellent!

    Trust your reflexes. They are excellent. Give yourself permission to go off the cliff. You are the sort of MacGyver writer who can crochet a parachute on the way down. It’s going to be a great book.

  6. I don’t see it streaming on either Netflix or Amazon.

    I suppose Netflix might have it on DVD, but I don’t know.

    I saw it in 1978 when it came out, and wonder if I’d like it today.

    1. Well, Goldie Hawn plays a giggly early-manic-pixie-dreamgirl and Chevy Chase has lost his luster for me, but I think the comedy would probably hold up.

      1. Even at the time, Chevy Chase bugged me, and I thought Brian Dennehy and Goldie Hawn would have made the better couple.

        As a fourteen year-old (or thereabouts) when I saw it, I remember loving her San Francisco apartment and thinking that if only I could move out into a tiny apartment on my own some day, and sit on my own big bed after work and knit (like her character did), that life would be perfect. If only, eh?

        I’d probably still like her apartment. And I do get to knit while sitting on a big bed anytime I want, so… : )

        1. Hope you can find it, Diane. Foul Play is one of my all-time faves and a go-to feel good movie for me. Yes, there’s some silly but silly can be good. As a writer, I think it’s a fun watch too & the timing of plot twists & upping the ante well done. So love her landlord (played by Burgess Meredith). Plus, she’s a librarian. Who doesn’t love a librarian defending herself with an umbrella? And yes, even her apartment feels upbeat. Have it on DVD & think you should be able to get it at Amazon.

    2. I found it on Netflix online, maybe search by just “big trouble” or ” little china”.
      Really needing something goofy and fun, in common with many people, I’m sure.

    3. Amazon sells the DVD for Foul Play for as little as 98¢.

      Turns out the library I work at has it and Big Trouble in Little China in the collection.

  7. First, Netflix has Foul Play on DVD. I’ve come out of lurking mode to applaud this Argh entry. Please, please just let it rip. I’ve read all the first, second and other drafts here and thought “where has Jennifer gone”? I’m a fiber artist and I know what happens when you try to restrain that inner voice. The results are polished and normal but boring as hell. Throw the damn knife and write us a novel. We’re starving out here.

  8. Read this post very confused, and then realized I was thinking of Chinatown, not Big Trouble in Little China. Yeeesh. Are antibiotics likely to fog up one’s brain, or is that just the sleep deficit talking?

    Rereading the post, it made much more sense.

  9. Big Trouble in Little China is one of my top five favorite movies, as you are one of my top five favorite writers. If there’s one thing I’ve learned coming out of the Cymbalta haze and trying to jump start my writing, NEVER hold yourself back. You can’t fix that in the rewrites. Just go for it babe. It’s so much fun when you do.

  10. I think about this alot with the rise of self-publishing in romance. Time and again, my favorite self-pubbed writers are the ones who just let loose and write this crazy ass thing they thought no one would want to read.

    Some of my faves:
    – Penny Reid put out a delightfully weird book last year where the hero was named Cletus and he was a coniving evil genius mastermind who gets blackmailed by the town’s meek “Bananna Cake Queen.” Shouldn’t work. Is so offbeat. Is sooooo good. (All of Reid’s books are like that.)

    – Kit Rocha is a duo who wrote mildly successful paranormal romances under another penname, thought their career was tanking, and decided to write a feminist dystopian erotic romance with bisexual characters and orgies galore. They just finished wrapping up their extremely successful and wildly original 10-book series in which their sexy outcasts form a family and fight the powers that be.

    I like writers who give me things I didn’t know I wanted. Swing for the fences. Someone may find it fricking delightful.

  11. So Husband and I are watching this for the first time as I type, mainly due to this blog post.
    1) This movie is tightly written, but omg some of this dialogue.
    2) Kurt Russel’s boots are awesome.

    1. I LOVE the dialogue. “Son of a bitch must pay.” “I know, there’s a problem with your face.” “I’m feeling sort of invincible.” “Sorry, sorry, just thrilled to be alive.” “Dave, you’re doing something seriously wrong here.” “My mind is going north and south.”
      I can’t begin to tell you how much I quote this movie IRL.
      And then there’s Kim Cattrall as the Exposition Fairy: “Green eyes? That’s like leather bucket seats.” Not to mention the way she shuts down Jack over and over again.

      I never got all fury over remaking Ghostbusters, but they’re going to remake this with the Rock, and I love the Rock, but that’s just wrong. Don’t mess with perfection.

      1. It’s the exposition fairy part that got to us. Paraphrasing, I’m Gracie Law, I talk fast and I stick my nose where I shouldn’t. I feel like those were the instructions in the script, above the dialogue, and Kim decided to say it and they liked it enough that they decided to run with it.

        1. The whole thing is pretty meta; it’s a satire on the Hero’s Journey, so having Gracie as the chorus seems obtrusive at first and then it fits.
          Carpenter was really doing something subversive, making the protagonist the hero’s sidekick, refusing the reward of the girl at the end, turning the whole monomyth on its ear. I used to teach this movie when I taught high school mythology. It just does such interesting things under the surface.
          Mostly I think it’s funny as hell


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