science fiction

Divergent: Do You Know Where You Belong?

Divergent by Veronica RothBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Did you know what you wanted to do with your entire life when you were only sixteen? What if you’d been forced to choose and could never change your decision?

That’s part of the dilemma faced by Beatrice (who later calls herself Tris) in Divergent.

The society in Divergent is divided into four factions—Abnagation (the selfless helpers), Amity (the peaceful, happy farmers), Candor (the honest, justice-seeking law-makers), Dauntless (the brave guardians), and Erudite (the intellectual researchers and scientists). In their sixteenth year, teens undergo testing to see where their aptitude lies, and then they must choose the faction that will become their new family. Faction over blood. And there’s no turning back unless you want to live factionless, a homeless, hungry outcast.

The leadership insists that factions maintain order and protect their society, and so they ruthlessly hunt down divergents—people who don’t fit into a single faction. Tris is a divergent. When it comes time to choose, she doesn’t have the guidance the aptitude test is supposed to provide.

Such a society sounds awful to our freedom-loving ears (though my husband and I did have some fun on the ride home from the movie trying to decide which faction we’d fit best in), but it’s not really so far off. How many of us were uncertain of what we wanted to do with our lives when we had to pick a major in university or a program of study in college? How many people end up in a different career from the one they went to school for? How many people stay trapped in a job they hate, that they selected when they were too young to know who they really were?

Last September, my husband went back to school. He’d already worked as a government contractor in the U.S. and an editor in Canada. Now he’s going through to be a paralegal.

When he originally went to university fresh out of high school, he thought he knew where his career path would lead. He’s had the freedom to change course, but not everyone does.

In fact, I think more people don’t have that freedom than do. Family commitments. Financial commitments. And when they reach a time in their life when they could change course, they feel like it’s too late to start over. (It never is, by the way. Just take a look at Debra Eve’s blog about late bloomers.)

But all this got me thinking—would we have fewer people changing course or feeling trapped if we didn’t ask young adults to choose their path so early in life? Are you someone who changed course? Was it difficult? I’d love to know what influenced your decision.

And for fun, what faction would you be in the Divergent world?

If you like suspense, I hope you’ll take a look at my ebook Frozen. Twisted sleepwalking. A frozen goldfish in a plastic bag. And a woman afraid she’s losing her grip on reality.

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What Would You Do If You Only Had 21 Days Left to Live?

Seeking a Friend for the End of the WorldBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Before anyone panics, no, I’m not dying in 21 days. (That I know of anyway.)

But that question has been on my mind since I watched Seeking a Friend for the End of the World because in the movie, that’s how long they have before an asteroid destroys the earth. All hope for diverting or breaking up the asteroid has just been lost as the movie opens.

In Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, people’s reactions are a lot like you’d expect. There are riots in the streets. Some people start drinking, doing heroine, and engaging in orgies. Some commit suicide. Some keep going about their daily routine like absolutely nothing has changed, showing up for work and cutting their lawns. Some seek to do the things left on their bucket list, make their souls right with God, and reconcile with estranged loved ones.

And it got me wondering what I’d do if I only had 21 days left.

There’s a quote that floats around where some famous author was asked what he would do if he only had a few days left to live, and his answer was, “Write faster.”

That wouldn’t be me.

If I had 21 days left to live, I’d set this computer down and never touch it except to write emails to people I cared about and wouldn’t be able to see in time to tell them how much they meant to me.

I love my job. I love to write. But it’s my career. If I had only a little time left to live, it’s not going to matter if I make enough money to pay the bills for next month. It’s not going to matter if I hit my word count on my novel or finish that next round of edits. If I’m gone, no one is likely to read it anyway. I’m not famous enough that someone else would take over the work involved in publishing my writing.

What’s going to matter to me is getting in as much time with my husband, and family, and friends as possible. Walking my dog and cuddling my cats. I’d eat what I wanted and I wouldn’t exercise 🙂

Thinking about that made me realize something. None of us really knows how long we have. We might only have 21 days. We might have none. Worse, someone we love might have none. Today might be the last day we have with them.

Which means we should be focusing on the important things every day rather than neglecting them for the someday when we’ll have more time. Too often I fall prey to the peer pressure that says to succeed we need to work 10-, 12-, 14-hour days. I don’t believe that, and I’ve made it my goal this year to figure out how to work smarter and make better use of my time. To take back my life.

(In fact, I just finished a fast draft to increase my writing speed. I’ll share more about that in a Wednesday post when we focus on writing.)

I value hard work. Hard work is important to success. But life is more than work. Or at least I believe it should be, no matter how much you love your job.

What would you do if you only had 21 days left to live? Do you think I’m wrong or wrong in my stance on long hours and life-work balance?

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Will Artificial Intelligence Ever Be Possible?

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

From Data in Star Trek, to David in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, to the cylons in Battlestar Galactica, we seem to be fascinated by the idea of robots who can think for themselves. (And the implications of that for our survival as a species.)

Scientists have made great advances in creating more adaptive code for their robots, in making them look more lifelike, and even in giving them the ability to mimic human facial expressions. Check out this video from the 2009 TED Talks.

But this is still a long way from robots being sentient. No matter how complex their programming, they still abide by it. No robot has been created who, like Data, can exceed the sum of his programming or who, like the cylons, can redesign their own programming and independently build more of their “species.”

So here’s my question for you. Do you think we’ll ever develop true artificial intelligence (in other words, sentient robots), or is this a concept that will forever remain a part of science fiction? More importantly, do you think true artificial intelligence would be beneficial or dangerous?

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When Should We Follow the Rules and When Should We Change Them?

Battlestar GalacticaBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

The biggest fight my husband and I ever had was over Battlestar Galactica.

I know. We’ve now jumped to the very top of the nerd list because most couples argue over the really important things like money or children or whether the in-laws should be allowed to dictate what color they paint their guest room.

But the truth is, we weren’t really arguing about Battlestar Galactica. We were arguing about a theme in it.

When things go wrong, do you stick to the traditional way of doing things, the traditional rules, or do you innovate and rewrite the rules?

The premise of Battlestar Galactica is that humans created Cylons to serve them, but the Cylons rebelled. Years later, the Cylons returned to the human planets and destroyed all 12 colonies. Less than 50,000 human beings survived. Now they’re running from the Cylons, living on a convoy of ships, protected entirely by one battlestar—Galactica.

In other words, life as they know it will never be the same.

Which raised an understandable dilemma for the leaders of the survivors about what was the best way to preserve the species. And that’s where things in my house went sideways.

An episode came on where an officer and an enlisted man whose relationship had been overlooked previously were ordered to stop seeing each other. I thought it was stupid to maintain rules and regulations against fraternization because, as President Roslin said, the only way the human race was going to survive was if people started having babies. My husband thought it was more important than ever in that situation to maintain rules and regulations against fraternization.

And while the issue of fraternization was what kicked the argument off, what we were really arguing about was if rules should ever be changed, and if so, when.

My husband is a former Marine. He’s also a traditionalist. So when he received an order to jump, he didn’t ask how high. He just jumped. And if things are going wrong, he believes that’s the moment when you should stick even more closely to the ways that have worked in the past.

And I could see his point. In a combat situation, you can’t hesitate to follow an order or you and everyone with you might die.

But I didn’t agree that the old rules and old ways of doing things are necessarily the best way. Someone has to earn my respect before I follow them, and I need to understand the logic behind a rule before I obey it. When something stops working, I look for a new way.

You can see how this fundamentally put us at odds. We’ve had to agree to disagree and can even joke about it now, but the question remains.

Is there ever a time when we need to change the rules? If so, when?

(And if you disagree with me that sometimes the rules should be changed, don’t be afraid to say so. I welcome disagreement here as long as it’s respectful.)

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The Adjustment Bureau: Would You Rather Achieve Your Dreams or Find True Love?

The Adjustment BureauBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

If you had to choose between achieving your dreams or finding true love, what would you choose?

That’s the dilemma faced by Brooklyn Congressman David Norris in the movie The Adjustment Bureau (based on the Philip K. Dick short story “Adjustment Team”).

The Adjustment Bureau is a secret supernatural agency who makes small “adjustments” so people stay on track with the plan. For example, they’ll spill coffee on someone’s shirt to make sure they miss a certain bus and are late for a meeting, changing the outcome of what’s decided there.

At the start of the movie, David briefly meets Elise, who inspires him to give a very candid speech. This speech changes the course of his career and sets him on track to one day become president. That was the purpose of him meeting Elise. He was never supposed to run into her again.

But the agent who trails David falls asleep and misses his scheduled adjustment so that David meets Elise for a second time.

And they fall in love.

The problem is they aren’t supposed to be together. Apart, David goes on to become a great president, and Elise goes on to be a renowned ballerina and choreographer. Together, his political career never takes off, and she ends up teaching dance to six-year-olds. Neither of them achieves their dreams.

An agent explains this to David, and asks him if he really wants to be the cause of the death of not only his own dreams but hers as well.

Love. Or your dreams.

That’s the choice.

It’s not an easy one. After all, chasing our dreams and having something important to strive for can make us better, more fulfilled people.

But if we reach the end of our lives and don’t have anyone to share it with, was it worth it? (This can mean more than just a romantic partner. Many people are so involved with their ambitions and chasing their dreams that they alienate their friends and family.)

In the end, David and Elise choose love.

If you had to choose, if you could only have one, what would you do?

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Three Common Dialogue Challenges and How to Beat Them

Common Dialogue Challenges and How to Beat ThemBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

What do we do about a character who speaks in a dialect? In historical fiction, how do we manage to keep our dialogue true to the time period without allowing it to sound stilted? Should we use contractions in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction?

Even if you’re normally confident when it comes to writing dialogue, these questions can give us hives as we struggle to find the answer. I hope to help chase the hives away.

What do we do about a character who speaks in a particular dialect?

If you’ve ever tried to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe, you’ll know how frustrating it can be to slog through dialect written out phonetically. You don’t want your reader to have to work that hard. So how do we find the balance between authenticity and readability?

Just name it.

She had a heavy New York accent.

He sounded like he was from the Deep South.  

Is this telling rather than showing? Yes, but it’s one of the situations where it’s actually okay to tell. In fact, if you don’t know how to replicate a dialect well enough to do it correctly, this is the wise option.

This technique works most successfully if you’re choosing to name an accent your reader will immediately be able to call to mind.  

Filter it through the ears of another character who isn’t familiar with the dialect. I personally love when an author does this well, but it only works if your character isn’t familiar with the dialect.

Jim glared at her. “You spoiled him. And after all, that ain’t no real kindness.” It came out like You spiled ‘im. And arter all, t’aint no real kindness.

You don’t have to do this more than once for the reader to understand what your character sounds like when they’re speaking.

Point out a distinctive word here and there. This option works in the same situations as the one above.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize.” When she said sorry, it sounded like soar-y instead of sari. I couldn’t get past the mental image of her covered in seeping wounds.

Forget copying it exactly, and instead think in terms of rhythm, word choice, syntax, grammatical mistakes, and missing words. Abileen’s chapters in The Help by Kathryn Stockett could be a master’s class in this. Listen to part of The Help’s first paragraph.

Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.

She uses “a” instead of “of.”
“I done” not “I have.”
“Them” and “they” instead of “those” and “their.”

Small but important grammatical mistakes.

Stockett chooses the word “mamas” over “mothers.” She chooses “toilet bowl” rather than “potty” or “bathroom” or “crapper.”

Syntax is basically about the patterns that form sentences and phrases. Stockett could have written, “I take care of white babies.” But she didn’t. She wrote, “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do.” She reversed the normal and expected order.

And when you write dialect this way, you’ll not only make the read easy and immersive for your audience. You’ll also avoid stereotypes and condescension.

A great source for preliminary dialect research is http://dialectblog.com

In historical fiction, how do we manage to keep our dialogue true to the time period without allowing it to sound stilted?

I asked this question to award-winning historical romance author Jody Hedlund during my interview with her.

You can read Jody’s full answer by clicking the link above, but in a nutshell, she said, “I don’t try to imitate the time period speech exactly. I usually pick out distinct words and assign them to particular characters to use throughout the book.”

When in doubt about whether a word is too modern, look it up. Jody suggested Phrases.org as her go-to. Dictionary.com will also often tell you when a word originated. You don’t have to stick solely to words from the era you’re writing about, but the closer you can come, the better.

A word might also sound too modern even if it isn’t. Occasionally, you’re going to run into a word that’s ancient but sounds modern. Technically you’re correct in using it, but I’d recommend changing it. Not all readers are historical scholars. They go by what sounds right. 

Should we use contractions in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction?

In every critique group, fiction intensive, or mentorship class I’ve ever attended with other fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction writers, this question has come up. And the class divided down the middle on the answer.

Those who felt contractions were acceptable argued that taking them out made the writing sound stilted and awkward. Those who felt contractions were unacceptable argued using them made the writing sound unauthentic and modern.

In a mentorship class I took from Randy Ingermanson, he pointed out that most languages, even ancient ones, had a way of shortening words or slang that made certain words and phrases easier and quicker to say.

Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman point out in their book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language that Old English used contractions. For example, ne is (“is not”) contracted to nis (“isn’t”) and ne wolde (“would not”) contracted to nolde (“wouldn’t). Contractions went in and out of fashion over the years, more so in writing than in speech. Even among the upper classes, contractions would have been used and tolerated in speech when they were considered unacceptable in writing.

So where does that leave us? We need to always strive for dialogue that sounds smooth and natural. If an excessive removal of contractions leaves our work feeling stilted and awkward, we should look for other ways to give an authentic feel.

We can instead rearrange the syntax of our sentences. We can remove contractions at key moments for emphasis (and downplay them throughout). We can replace modern-feeling phrases with ones slightly less common.

Do you have any other tips for handling these problems? What authors do you think handle them well?

If you missed out on the earlier installments in this series, click the following links to read 5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know, 7 Tricks for Adding Variety to Your Dialogue, How to Write Dialogue Unique to Your Characters, and Does Your Dialogue Deserve to Exist?

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Source Code: Does What You Do Matter?

Source CodeBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Do you ever wonder how many people could have made a difference in the world, could have changed things for the better, but didn’t…because they stopped believing they could?

In Source Code, Army helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up as Sean, a history teacher on a commuter train. Eight minutes later a bomb on the train explodes, killing everyone.

Colter wakes up again, this time in a strange capsule. He finds out that he’s part of an experimental crime fighting program known as source code. A complex computer program writes a code from the last eight minutes of a person’s life and allows Colter to re-live them in order to find the bad guy.

Colter goes back again and again into the last eight minutes of Sean’s life, and falls in love with Sean’s friend Christina, also killed in the explosion. He starts to think if he can just stop the bomb from exploding and catch the bomber, he can save Christina.

The source code creator tells him he can’t change the past. Christina and all the others on the train are already dead.

Though Colter manages to identify the bomber, in the process he’s found out the truth—he was killed in Afghanistan. All that remains of him is, essentially, his brain hooked up to a computer. He can never have a normal life again. He can either continue to live through the last eight minutes of other people’s lives or he can insist they disconnect him from the computer and allow what remains of him to die.

The problem is Colter can’t accept he can’t first save Christina. He asks his handler to violate orders and send him back in one last time and then to disconnect his brain from the computer at the exact moment the eight minutes end. Even if he can’t really save Christina, he wants his last memories, his final moments, to be spent trying.

His handler takes pity on him and agrees, even though source code’s creator wants to simply wipe Colter’s memory and keep using his brain against Colter’s wishes.

Colter goes back into Sean’s final minutes. He’s learned from his mistakes. This time he disables both the bomb’s main detonator and its back-up detonator. He catches the bomber, handcuffs him, and calls the police to tell them exactly where he is and what he planned to do.

Then he asks Christina, “If you knew you only had one minute left to live, how would you spend it?”

He kisses her.

And expects that to be his last moment.

But the moment when the memory should have ended passes. Colter can barely believe it, but he walks off the commuter train with Christina. He sends his handler a text…

“At some point today, you’re going to hear about a failed terrorist attack on a commuter train near Chicago. You and I kept that bomb from going off. If you’re reading this email, then Source Code works even better than you imagined.”

Against all odds, Colter made a difference because he refused to give up and refused to stop believing he could.

The refusal to stop believing is a quality shared by all the people who’ve changed the world. (Click to tweet.)

Some of them were leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King.

Some of them were normal people like Rosa Parks who simply did the right thing and believed it would make a difference.

Some of them didn’t change the world, but they did change the world for someone. Colter didn’t save the world, but he did do something amazing for every person on that train.

None of that would have happened if they’d stopped believing what they did mattered.

Never stop believing you can make a difference.

Do you ever feel insignificant and wonder if what you do matters?

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Should Some Questions Go Unanswered?

MIB3“Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to.”

This is what people tell Agent J (Will Smith) in Men in Black III every time he asks Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), “How did you get this way?”

The whole movie turns on this question.

Boris the Animal, a boglodite (a species of parasite-like aliens), escapes from the LunarMax prison on the moon, and travels back in time to kill a young Agent K before K blows off Boris’s arm in 1969. Boris succeeds and puts the earth in grave danger of being invaded by the boglodites. Agent J has to go back in time to save K and the earth.

When we got in the car after the movie, my husband gave me a pointed look. “Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to. Sounds like a lesson someone I know should learn.”

“In what way?”

Deadpan, in a perfect Admiral Ackbar imitation, he said, “It’s a trap!”

And I laughed, not just because we’re Star Wars nerds, but because, in a way, my husband was right. Women are particularly fond of asking questions we don’t need or want the answer to.

Do these jeans make my butt look big?
Do you think she’s prettier than me?
What do you think of my hair?

We force people to lie to us, or get angry with them when they don’t.

Not every question should be asked. Not every question should be answered. Some questions only torment us and the person we ask.

But sometimes, even if we don’t want the answer, we may need it.

Through the Men in Black series, Agent J believes his father chose to be absent while he was growing up. He carried around a lot of resentment and pain. Because he refuses to stop asking and refuses to accept anything less than an answer, he finds out the truth. His father was a hero who died helping Agent K save the world from Boris the Animal.

And what was it that made K the way he is? Seeing the young James (Agent J) hop out of the nearby Jeep only moments after his father is killed and ask about his dad. K flashed him with his memory eraser so that he wouldn’t remember being there.

Knowing that answer helped J both personally in accepting that his father didn’t willingly abandon him, and professionally in understanding and appreciating his partner more. The answer hurt him, but it also helped him.

The same can be true for us, but the tricky part is learning the difference between a question we don’t want to know the answer to yet need to, and a question we ask out of our own insecurity or immaturity.

Did you cheat on me?
Are you still drinking?
Is my novel ready to publish?
Do I need to lose weight?

The answers to those types of questions might hurt. We might not really want to know. But knowing the answer is for the best.

How do you figure out whether a question you don’t really want to know the answer to is one you need to ask anyway?

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Do You Listen to Advice?

Are we alone in the universe? If not, should we try to make contact?

At the start of Battleship, scientists have found an Earth-like planet the perfect distance from its own sun to sustain life and big enough to have its own atmosphere. They don’t know if an intelligent species lives on the planet or not, so they send out a message using a deep space satellite.

One scientist assigned to the project worries this is a bad idea. “If there is intelligent life out there and they’re able to travel here, it’ll be like Columbus and the Indians. But we’ll be the Indians.”

Confident in human superiority, no one listens to him. The aliens show up years later as the Navy’s RIMPAC joint naval exercise opens. They’re not friendly.

Lieutenant Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) serves on a destroyer, and is out on the Pacific for RIMPAC. The aliens set up an impenetrable bubble, cutting off three ships from the rest of the fleet, and quickly destroy two of them. Because the captain and XO of his ship are killed, Hopper ends up the senior officer on the remaining ship.

Hopper is the worst possible choice for command. He’s been a screw-up his whole life because he’s too proud to listen to the wise advice of the people around him, and he allows himself to be goaded like a child. Before the alien attack, he was set to be dishonorably discharged for fighting with the captain of another navy’s ships. His natural intelligence and creativity are useless because they aren’t tempered by common sense and self-control.

You can tell by the looks on the crew’s faces that they think they’re doomed. And they might have been, except for one thing—Hopper finally listens to someone else. He takes the advice of his chief petty officer to retreat rather than ramming the alien ship with his destroyer the way he wanted to.

As the battle for earth continues, Hopper and his crew survive and destroy the alien ships within the bubble because he becomes humble enough to learn from others. He allows the Japanese captain (the one he fought with) to teach him a trick using water displacement and weather buoys to map an enemy’s position without radar. And when their destroyer finally goes down, they have only one ship left—the retired battleship Missouri. None of his men know how to operate the battleship, so Hopper humbles himself again to ask for help from the Korean War veterans, who most of the world sees as obsolete.

It’s important to trust our gut and to seek out creative solutions to problems. But there’s also a place for listening to people who have more experience and more wisdom than we do. We can’t always see our own shortcomings.

The closer we get to our goals and the more skilled we get, the easier it is to forget how much we still have to learn and how much wisdom older, more experienced people have to offer. It’s especially easy when the advice we need to hear comes from the lips of someone we don’t like. But if we don’t humble ourselves enough to at least listen, our arrogance can actually prevent us from achieving our dreams.

How do you decide when to listen to advice and when to go with your gut?

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Men in Black 3 – When Should A Series End?

After a 10 year break, the Men in Black are back for a third movie. Agent J (Will Smith) learns that Agent K’s (Tommy Lee Jones’s) life is in danger from a time-traveling alien criminal. If K dies, the earth’s very existence could be in danger. Agent J must go back in time to 1969 to save Agent K, but he only has 24 hours to do it or he’ll be trapped in the past.

The original 1997 Men in Black was funny and innovative, but as with many series, we have to ask the question–when should it end? Is there a series you felt went on too long? Which series do you think got better with later installments?

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