Up with QuizUp.

by Nicole Willson

A few weeks ago, I saw an online ad for QuizUp, an app that hosts a worldwide, 24-hour-a-day trivia tournament. I’ve tried plenty of online trivia games (especially in times when I was trying out for Jeopardy or practicing for my appearance), but something about this game drew me in and has yet to let go. The interface is clean and colorful and works well on both my iPhone and my iPad mini, and the game itself is incredibly addictive.

There’s a wide variety of topics that gets wider by the day, so you can either test yourself on what you think you already know or try out something you don’t know and possibly surprise yourself. I do fairly well in Spanish despite having never taken a single class; it’s amazing what I’ve picked up from bilingual labels and signs, as well as from the language’s similarities to French. And try Beer Labels for a laugh — even if you never touch the stuff, it’s fun to try to noodle out the brands simply from examining the labels, especially if the Photoshopper didn’t do a good enough job of removing identifying information.

The game offers several achievements and rankings if you continue to play and do well, especially if you do well in several categories. As of this writing, I’m “Best in Virginia” in both Horror Fiction and the new category Riddles, although there’s some pretty fierce competition in Riddles.

A few gripes: There are occasional questions with blatantly wrong answers; although you can report these easily, it can take time for them to vanish to the cornfield. And because the game wants you to have someone to play against at all times, you may find yourself matched up with a bot that answers questions randomly if there are no other actual humans playing your category. Bots tend to have low user rankings, no personal photos, and an odd tendency to know all about obscure horror novels but nothing about Stephen King or Edgar Allan Poe. Because bots are generally easy to beat, they’re fun if you’re going for the 50-wins-in-a-row Ramtastic achievement. They’re less fun if you’re looking for a genuine challenge.

It wasn’t long before I had the itch to start contributing questions of my own; QuizUp has a big green “Contribute Content!” button at the bottom of most main pages. I rather brashly submitted an entire figure skating quiz before realizing that there’s an etiquette to suggesting new topics (and that several of my questions were already part of the Winter Olympics category), but I did better with my second submission for Horror Fiction. QuizUp wrote me back pretty quickly asking me for more questions.

So yay! Someone somewhere will be using my writing.

And I am “Nicole Willson” on QuizUp if you’d like to friend me or challenge me at anything. It’s free, so what are you waiting for?

Fannibal.

by Nicole Willson

(This will be spoilery, both for the TV show and for the films based on “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” You have been warned.)

When I first read that NBC ordered a series based on Hannibal Lecter, I rolled my eyes. I may or may not have muttered “The 90s called — they want their pop culture icon back.” I mean, really. Hadn’t this character been run into the ground already?

But then I started reading things about it that piqued my curiosity.

The show was created by Bryan Fuller, who was behind “Dead Like Me,” a short-lived cable show I’d enjoyed a lot. And then I saw that Scott Thompson had been cast in a supporting role. Scott Thompson, from “Kids in the Hall”? Playing a character who was described in all the books as a grumpy old man? This was definitely different.

The show itself would be set in a time prior to the events of the novel “Red Dragon.” Nobody would know who — and what — Lecter really was at the beginning of the show. Nobody but the audience. This was an approach to the story that I hadn’t seen before.

And here comes Blasphemy Time: I don’t think that any of the Hannibal Lecters in the films did justice to the character as he’s depicted in the books. Yes, I know Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for the role. But I don’t think his portrayal in “The Silence of the Lambs” has aged well at all. The Dr. Lecter in my head is subtle and smooth. Hopkins — at least in SotL — is all campy and over the top. I don’t know how Clarice didn’t burst out laughing at him, because he’s like what Truman Capote would have been if he’d been a serial killer. I think that Hopkins’s Lecter is much better in “Red Dragon;” he has more of the subtle restraint I think the role really needs.

(I know there’s a fan belief that Brian Cox is a vastly superior “Lecktor” in “Manhunter,” but: Meh. I generally like him, but I see none of Lecter’s sleek, brilliant sophistication in Cox’s portrayal.)

My initial resistance worn down, I tuned in for the show’s premiere last year. The show was nothing at all like what I expected. It’s about as far from the typical gritty TV crime drama as it’s possible to get. It’s bloody and violent and so very, very dark, but it’s also surreal and haunting and oddly beautiful. I wasn’t too sure about it after the first couple episodes, but eventually it reeled me in.

One thing: You will have to suspend the shit out of your disbelief. You will be saying “Like THAT would ever really happen” all the time as you’re watching. I know that’s pretty much SOP with any TV crime drama, but “Hannibal” cranks it up to eleven. But if you can let that go, it’s worth the ride.

Another thing: You’ll have to forget everything you know about the Will Graham/Hannibal Lecter storyline in the books. The show takes the bare bones of that situation — Graham consulted with Lecter a time or two before realizing that Lecter was in fact the killer he was pursuing — and runs wild with it.

I didn’t realize just how caught up I’d become in the show until they recently killed off a character I liked more than I knew. But the performances have been top notch across the board. Mikkelsen is a little taller than I imagined Lecter being, but other than that he’s about as close as anyone’s come to a portrayal of Lecter that matches the impression I got from the character in the novels. He’s sleek. He’s sophisticated. He serves his friends divine-looking gourmet meals. (Don’t ask what’s in them. Just don’t.) He’s so good at passing himself off as a sympathetic person that only a handful of characters have recognized what he really is.

And while I don’t think Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham would work at all in a straight adaptation of “Red Dragon,” he’s perfect for this particular take on the story — vulnerable because of his awful gift of being able to visualize crimes just from looking at the bloody aftermath, deeply tormented as he makes the connection between the killer he’s hunting and Lecter (that odd creature up above is Will’s mental manifestation of this terrible realization), but tough and steely as he fights out of the trap Lecter set for him.

Crawford, played by Laurence Fishburne, also gets a much richer portrayal than he ever has in the movies. I never found any of the film Crawfords compelling, but I could see why Clarice Starling might risk a lot for Fishburne’s version of the character. I’m glad the show didn’t brush aside his wife Bella’s fight with cancer as the film adaptation of “Silence of the Lambs” did, because it means I get to see the wonderful Gina Torres at work.

The show does not shy away from depicting the thing that Dr. Lecter is most famous for doing. Don’t assume that if you’re a smug vegetarian like me, you’ll get away unscathed — the “human mushroom garden” in season one put me right off of portobellos for a good long while.

As is too often the case with shows I like, “Hannibal” gets very low ratings and I was honestly surprised that it survived to a second season. I really hope that if it gets axed by NBC, some other network grabs it up. I started off as a skeptic, but now I am definitely a Fannibal.

Camp NaNoWriMo 2014.

by Nicole Willson

Yes, it’s that time again. I enjoyed being a Camp NaNoWriMo editing rebel so much last year that I’m going to do it again this year.

As I mentioned previously, I got some valuable and badly-needed feedback on Book One earlier this year. I would have liked to be further ahead in editing the manuscript, but Real Life got involved in a very big way in the latter half of March, and I just didn’t have the time or the brainpower to get very far into the edit.

April is looking somewhat calmer (knock on wood), so I’m going to give Camp another shot. Having a targeted goal seems to help me stay on track with writing and editing. I believe that last year, we figured that 50 hours of editing could sub for 50,000 words, but I’m hoping to get a complete edit of the manuscript done no matter how many specific hours it takes me.

Anyone else giving it a try? Camp tends to be a little looser than the actual NaNoWriMo event in November. You don’t have to knock out 50K words; you can set a much smaller goal for yourself.

Writing Old School.

by Nicole Willson

So I haven’t been writing in this blog as much as I expected to lately.

There’s an actual reason for that beyond laziness this time: I’ve been writing stuff down in an old-fashioned notebook. Maybe thinking about “Harriet the Spy” brought that on; I don’t know.

Keeping a paper journal was something I did religiously in high school, college, and my first few years of adulthood. I’d buy plain spirals from the drugstore and go to town.

I remember being very nervous that someone in college would find my journals and read them and I’d end up on the receiving end of a huge round of Harriet-style revenge for what I put down in there. Like Harriet, I was pretty unsparing about the people in my life, even when I liked them.

It wasn’t until I dug those college spirals out and read them again a few years ago that I realized the sad truth: Nobody who wasn’t me would find those things interesting enough to bother with for very long. At the time, I thought everything I was going through was incredibly significant and meaningful, and I’d stay up late into the night writing every last bit of it down. Now it all seems like semi-drunken adolescent twaddle, way too much mental energy expended on things and people that didn’t deserve it at all.

But I also wrote about things like my father’s death. There are details in those entries that I’d probably have long since forgotten otherwise, like the time when I got into our car after returning home for the funeral, found my dad’s coat in the backseat, thought “Mom brought that so he wouldn’t be cold when he got out of the hospital, and now he will never wear that again,” and got tearful. I hated getting tearful because anyone around me felt compelled to come over and make a fuss over me, and even though I knew they meant well, I hated that. I wanted to be left alone to cry. There were many little moments that would catch me unaware and knock me breathless all over again, and darned if they weren’t all immortalized in those spirals.

I very much hope that this little paper journal I’m keeping now will not have anything quite so devastating in its pages.

One thing that makes paper journaling more challenging than it was: Holy hell, but my handwriting sucks now. It was never very good to begin with, but after decades of me doing 99.99 percent of my writing on computers, it’s almost illegible. I might as well be writing in secret code.

And also: After all my years of typing and typing, I get writer’s cramp much faster than usual now. Gone are the days when I could scribble for hours without even having to shake my hand out, so my journal entries are much shorter.

But then again that’s not a bad habit: Figure out what I really need to say and the most efficient way to say it. Maybe it will be good practice.

Happy 50th, Harriet.

by Nicole Willson

At some point while I wasn’t looking, “Harriet the Spy” hit its 50th anniversary.

I’m not sure if I can even express just how much I loved this book when I was a kid. A chubby, bespectacled girl who liked to write snarky things? Harriet M. Welsch was more than just a fictional character for me; I think she was a life model.

I spent my first few years in a Manhattan environment very similar to Harriet’s, and so her surroundings felt like home to me. She seemed like someone I might have actually known. I never lived in an apartment with a dumbwaiter, but I knew what they were. (Never occurred to me to try to hide in one, though. Just as well; I could imagine that ending badly.)

While I tried to be Harriet when I was a fifth grader without a lot of real-life friends, I mostly lacked her nerve. I popped the lenses out of a pair of bright blue kiddie sunglasses and wore them like they were real glasses, Harriet-style, but my parents told me they looked ridiculous and made me stop it. (I got to wear real glasses soon enough, alas.) My “spy route” was mostly whatever I could see if I looked out my bedroom window on a slow afternoon.

And I was not about to take my “spy” notebook out in public where anyone could possibly discover it. Because this picture from the book, right after Harriet’s friends have read all the awful stuff she wrote about them?

Aww, poor Sport. Everyone else is pissed, but he actually looks really hurt.

Brrr. Man, that image is still the stuff of nightmares for me.

Something else that made an impression on me back then and has influenced my reading preferences to this day: Harriet is far from a nice kid. She can be a bratty, mean little shit for no reason at all, just like everyone at that age. She wasn’t always likable, but that made her relatable to me. I detest perfectly perfect heroines whose one flaw is that they’re klutzy (which is, of course, not an actual character flaw at all).

The book also did — and does — an excellent job of capturing how weird it is when you’re a kid and you realize for the first time that the grownups around you have lives of their own, that they did not come into existence at the same time you did, and that their worlds don’t revolve entirely around you.

And one of the last lines of the book — and arguably part of its underlying message — is “Sometimes you have to lie.” Whoa. That message in a children’s book seems positively anarchic. Telling kids it’s OK to lie sometimes? I’m amazed I don’t see this one turn up on yearly “Banned Books” lists more often.

But it’s those very things about the book — the bratty kids, the utterly unsentimental messages — that make it so enjoyable and enduring.

I also remember feeling dejected the first time I read the author bio and learned that Louise Fitzhugh had died not long after the book was published. That made me feel like something about Harriet herself was lost.

I very much like the book’s first sequel “The Long Secret,” in which Harriet takes something of a supporting role to her mousy, quiet friend Beth Ellen. While Judy Blume’s “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” gets the lion’s share of attention when it comes to books about preteen girls grappling with their first periods and the role of religion in their lives, I think “The Long Secret” handles those topics almost as well, albeit from a very Christian-centric worldview.

The rest of the Harriet sequels and spinoffs didn’t do much for me; neither did the Nickelodeonized mid-90s film. Bill and I were probably the only adults in the audience who didn’t have kids with us when we saw it in the theater.

Whenever someone asks what books from my childhood stayed with me and influenced me, I like to give more intellectual-sounding answers like “To Kill A Mockingbird.” But if I’m being completely honest, “Harriet the Spy” wins that question hands down.

Gravity.

by Nicole Willson

On Saturday, Bill and I saw “Gravity” at the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse.

There’s a saying about fiction writing that in order to create conflict, you should chase your protagonist up a tree and then throw rocks at her.

Well.

In “Gravity,” Alfonso Cuaron chases Sandra Bullock up a tree, throws rocks at her, sets the tree on fire, and lets a pack of zombies loose around the base of the burning tree.

And I’m talking the modern “28 Days Later” type of zombies that can outrun Usain Bolt, not the old-school Romero zombies that can be easily outstrolled.

Seriously; I was very grateful for the wine I had while watching the movie, because otherwise I might have had an anxiety attack. I won’t vouch for the scientific accuracy of any of it, but I enjoyed it anyhow.

And I am never, ever going into space.

Genius? Quite Possibly. Villainous? No Way.

by Nicole Willson

This story is just weird, and it’s been bugging me ever since I first saw it.

I was not expecting the friendly face of Arthur Chu, the current Jeopardy champion, to be beaming out at me when I looked at the Daily Mail this morning.

Yeah, I know. It’s the Daily Mail. It’s about as valid and non-sensational as the National Enquirer.

But still; Jeopardy contestants usually only make the news like this if they give a response that sounds dirty and it goes viral, or if they’re Leonard Cooper giving a smartass answer to Final Jeopardy, or if they’re Ken Jennings. So seeing Arthur Chu described as using “villainous tactics!” really jumped out at me. My heart sank when I saw that and I wondered if he’d been caught cheating. He hadn’t. This is a supremely silly non-story.

Although the contestant coordinators will urge you to run through a category in order during pre-show briefings, it’s hardly an unusual — or underhanded — thing for contestants to hunt for the Daily Doubles instead. And jumping from category to category to throw the other contestants off balance is really not a new thing. Chuck Forrest, who I believe will be appearing in the “Battle of the Decades” this month, pioneered that technique all the way back in the 80s. To this day, it’s still called the “Forrest bounce.”

That’s not to take anything away from Arthur’s gameplay; he’s doing a great job and is a very deserving champion. But the idea that he’s doing something shady or unethical is just bizarre to me.

And if you don’t like how he’s playing the game? Fine. Get on the show yourself and do better. Take it from someone who’s been there: It’s not nearly as easy as it seems in your living room.

Writing Update.

by Nicole Willson

So I’m getting some very useful feedback on my first novel. That’s been an extremely humbling and daunting experience, but boy, was it necessary. No matter how many times you think you’ve gone over your story and fixed all the continuity errors and made everything clear that needs to be clear, you didn’t. There’s simply no substitute for someone else looking at it.

And after I’ve revised the manuscript again, what next? Well, I said that I wouldn’t ever send my work to PublishAmerica. But hey — they changed their name to America Star Books, so that means they must be OK now, right? So I’ll be sending my work off to them after I get it all spiffed up.

Not.

I literally laughed out loud when I first saw this news. You can try to call a bag of rotting garbage that’s been festering in the sun for days “Chanel No. 5,” but it’ll still reek.

American Horror Story: Coven — “Liza Minnelli Talks About Her Hip.”

So how funny is this? Turns out a big clue to the identity of the next Supreme was right in our faces the whole season.

by Nicole Willson

There are loads of spoilers for “Coven’s” final episode below. Don’t read if you don’t want to know.

Ryan Murphy’s claimed there were clues about next season planted in the final episode of “Coven.” Does that mean Liza Minnelli is going to be a cast member? That seemed like a very weird, random reference otherwise.

First off: I really liked this episode. I probably liked it as much as I’ve liked any episode this season past the first two or three.

But it also frustrated the hell out of me, because I saw a glimmer of how very good this whole season could have been if it hadn’t turned into such a sprawling and unfocused mess.

Think of all the subplots and characters that added nothing in the end. Think of all the time that could have been spent developing the characters of the young witches in the academy instead, so that we’d feel a lot more invested in who the next Supreme turned out to be.

I loved Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates, but their absence in this final episode drove home how pointless both their characters ultimately were. The only sign that either Marie or Delphine had ever been on the canvas at all was Papa Legba’s last appearance.

And it didn’t have to be that way. The show could have focused on the conflict it appeared to be developing in the beginning: a war between Fiona’s witches and Marie’s voodoo cult, with Delphine possibly serving as some kind of free agent or loose cannon between the two warring factions. It could have been really cool. Instead we got fundie wackjob ladies and thwarted voodoo babymaking attempts and laughably inept witch hunting organizations and Minotaurs, none of which had any meaning to the show in the end.

Oh well. Gotta write about the show I got rather than the show I wish I got, so there it is.

I thought it was very sweet that Queenie seemed to be trying to reach Nan in the beginning. I’m not entirely sure what Queenie was doing, but at least Nan wasn’t forgotten.

I posted a joke on a forum about how Stevie Nicks was probably the next Supreme, and even though I was kidding, part of me wondered if the show wouldn’t actually do that, because that’s how ridiculous the whole season has been.

So Zoe wasn’t the Supreme. I was wrong. That’s OK. I can accept Cordelia as the real Supreme, and Zoe’s personal hell was so fucking lame that I lost any desire I’d had to see her become the most powerful witch anyhow. I like Taissa Farmiga and Evan Peters, but damn, were they wasted this season.

I am fanwanking the idea that when Misty’s body disintegrated, she was released from her personal hell and sent somewhere much more peaceful. Otherwise, she’s suffering the same fate that Marie, Delphine, and Fiona all got, and I cannot abide that thought. She so didn’t deserve that.

Did anyone else expect some huge final twist at the end? As the clock moved inexorably towards 11:00 and neither the Axe Man nor Papa Legba had appeared yet even though Danny Huston and Lance Reddick were in the opening credits, I got more and more tense. I was convinced that Fiona, who was so obviously not really dead, was about to stage one last bloody coup.

And when she finally showed up and moved to embrace Cordelia, I actually said out loud “Noooo, don’t do it, Cordelia — it’s a trap!” But no; Fiona got the ending she richly deserved. I was okay with that.

Random thoughts and quibbles:

So what happened to the baby who Spalding took from Marie? I probably don’t want to know the answer to that.

Why on earth didn’t Madison use all her powers — telekinesis, mind control, etc. — to slam Kyle through a wall when he started to strangle her? We know she could have at least controlled him mentally because we’d just seen her do that not a half-hour before. Again, show: If you give characters a special power and then fail to have them use it in a situation where it seems that they can and really should, you need to give the audience a reason why they didn’t. Otherwise that’s just bad, lazy writing.

(And was it really weird for Evan Peters and Emma Roberts to have to play that scene given that they’re engaged in real life?)

I still say Madison was the most consistently written character this season. “Um, you want me to resurrect someone who’s been my romantic rival and who might be my competition for next Supreme? Yeah, no.” That was great, and unlike a lot of character behavior this season, it fit Madison’s personality and made perfect sense.

So why exactly was Zoe ruled out as the next Supreme? Did getting impaled on the gate effectively eliminate her, even though she could transmute as well as the others and we already know she could resurrect people? It doesn’t matter now, but it was another loose end that should have been snipped.

Anyhow, I’ll still watch next season, but I so hope that the writers learn a bit of restraint and focus. Otherwise, they may as well make Jessica Lange’s last season the last season of the show too.

I Am Sherlocked.

Thanks, Bill!

by Nicole Willson

So I saw that Sherlock would be the cover story for “Entertainment Weekly” this week.

Once upon a time, I’d stop by a little store near my office and get “Entertainment Weekly” every Friday as a “Yay, I survived the week” treat.

However, that little newsstand was bought out by Gateway Newsstands and closed for remodeling, and when it reopened on Friday, “Entertainment Weekly” was conspicuous by its absence. (In fact, the “Newsstand” part of that new store’s name is highly misleading, if you ask me. But that’s a rant for another time.)

And I wanted that damn Sherlock issue, dammit. But it’s not so easy to get a copy of EW now. We went to Galaxy Hut on Friday night, and while there’s a Barnes and Noble nearby that’s part of our post-Hut sobering-up ritual, they tend to lag a bit on getting up-to-date periodicals. And so it was with “Entertainment Weekly;” they still had the cover that featured Ben Affyuck rather than Benedict Cumberbatch.

I was very unamused.

On the drive home, Bill started to say “You know, it’s still a little early and I’m not that tired yet, so if you wanted to stop at the Barnes and Noble in Fairfax –”

“OK!” I said.

The Fairfax Barnes and Noble did not let me down. I got my Sherlock issue, and now I’m just a half-hour away from finally getting to see the season premiere. Nice way to spend Sunday night of a long weekend.