Friday, February 13, 2015

50 Shades of Why

So, the movie is finally out and people have seen it and the reactions are mixed. What is up with 50 Shades of Grey. Why were the books so popular and why is the movie getting such mixed reviews? I think I’ve found the answer to that. It is a fantasy that really shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

When it comes to our sexual fantasies, what turns us on in our heads is occasionally things that would repel us in real life. Books often tie into that fantasy world and titillate us with things happening to characters that border or downright are a sexual fantasy. It works in a book. It is just the reader and the words and the images they create. None of it is real.

Then there is the obligatory movie adaption. The reaction I’m seeing spread over the internet is mixed. Well, not so much mixed as mixed in why they didn’t like it. Fans of the books don’t find it to be a good adaption. The characters lack any spark and the actors don’t really portray the characters as written. Others just object to the BDSM that is at the core of the story.

So, what went wrong and what is wrong with this movie. Well, it lays at the heart of the reason the books were so big. Fantasy. I’ve read enough to know that even if the author describes something, a reader can take or leave that description. In this case, the large body of female readers have made Christian Grey whoever they want him to be. By turning it into a movie, you cut off that fantasy and you give them an actor in the role. Suddenly the flaws of the story pop out. You no longer a reader immersed in the world the author created, you are an observer watching two people act out the scenes.

I’ve seen a great many who have praised Dakota Johnson for her performance and a great many who have panned her performance. The book is written in first person present tense. It creates an immediacy and the reader becomes Ana Steele. The movie, by necessity, changes that immediacy to the typical outside viewpoint, similar to third person. That inner connection to Ana is lost and you can only observer what she does. Basically the fantasy is broken.

Then there is the subject matter, BDSM is something unique. It is two people mutually agreeing to have rough sex. That is all fine and good, but it has to be handled delicately. Stray too far and it is no longer BDSM but domestic violence and rape. Most movies that touch on this emphasize a safe word. Some unusual word that allows a participant to call a halt to everything. This is usually because the typical words of “no” and “stop” then become part of the fantasy allowing the simulation of things, all with the knowledge that should it go to far there is always that safe word. For many who have been a victim of domestic violence or rape, watching such a simulation is disturbing to say the least. Safe word or no, the concept of BDSM brings unpleasant memories. There are others who just find it distasteful and anything but romantic.

The end result is a movie that is being panned by the critics and the audience. While the books were a great hit, the movie appears to be a dud. It seems it failed to maintain the fantasy of the books, and just became a tale of BDSM and leaves most viewers wondering why the books were so popular. I think this movie will appeal to those who find Jamie Dorman hot and who can identify with Dakota Johnson. For the rest of us it has become 50 Shakes of Why. That is one of the dangers of making a movie based on such a personal fantasy.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Origins of Characters

I recorded a documentary on the behind the scenes off the James Bond franchise a while back and I finally got to watch it a couple of nights ago. While much of it was the behind the scenes drama of the movies, the first part held a lot of fascinating aspects for me as a writer.

Ian Flemming participated in World War II as a spy. However, he was not a field spy, but he did manage a field spy team. He would rather have been in the field. He was a commander in the Royal Navy, but land bound in London. During the war he fell for a young courier. They were very close, but she was killed and it left him heart broken. After the war he was lost. Spent time at his Goldeneye estate. When the Cold War dawned he got the idea for James Bond. Many aspect of James Bond are autobiographical. Flemming was a bit of a playboy and never really settled down.

So, how did Flemming create James Bond. Well, the name came from a book on birds he had at Goldeneye. James Bond was the author and Flemming thought it just the sort of boring name his spy would need. Otherwise Bond was basically the spy Flemming had wanted to be, but reset from WWII to the Cold War. Bond was a cold killer and a passionate lover. He could switch from one to the other as the need arose. You can't quite say that Flemming didn't give him flaws, but it is those flaws as a person that make him a great spy. The same flaws Flemming saw in himself. Well, maybe not flaws, but aspects of his personality that really didn't fit in with the quite life.

That is just one example of how you create an iconic character. George Lucas did something far different with Star Wars. He consulted Campbell's book of mythical archetypes and used those to populate his story, a strange mixture of samurai cinema, WWII war movie, and his own boyhood in California. If any character in the film shared traits with Lucas himself, it would have been Han Solo, or maybe Chewbacca. The others come from myths and speak to the type of story humans have been telling for millennia.

Then there is Charles Dickens. So much of his work is autobiographical. He knew the things he wrote about and while I can't say if he put himself in any of the characters, he definitely put his family in them. Some writers didn't leave much to compare, but there are tantalizing tidbits. Victor Hugo was out on the streets of Paris and came across a barricade on that fateful night. Who might he have seen there that led to Jean Valjean, Marius, Enjolras, Eponine, or Gavroche. Regardless of the individuals, whoever he met that night likely died and lived again in the spirit of the characters he created.

Jane Austen lived most of the life of her heroines. He family was of modest income, comfortable but not rich. Her family was close. Her stories are a biography of her time. But unlike her characters, she never found the love and marriage she made sure they had.

Writers often create characters who are based on hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled. Lives cut short, loves lost, careers not tried. Often characters are more polished that the original, but sometimes they go the other way. This all goes in line with what I think makes a good character. Realism is the key to connecting with the reader. Sometimes that realism may be linking to our real life fantasies, not our real life. Some characters live the life we can only dream of, some are so close to us that we empathize with, some are so bad off that you hope no one you care about ends up like that. But in each case and in the areas in between, they are the realities encountered by our species. Our characters, even when they wield great powers that defy physics, are human. That is what makes them relateable to readers.

So it is no wonder that some of the most iconic characters have their origins in the real lives of their creators or the lives of those around them. The good characters feel real because they have their origins from the complex and human lives of their creators.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Write What You Know?

They say when you sit down to write that you should write what you know, but is that really good advice? I’ve come across a few instances where it just might be the worst advice you could follow.

This past year there has been a big blow up in the speculative fiction community about gender stereotypes in writing. More recently there was an analysis of the seven season of the new Doctor Who series using the Bechdel test to determine if the show was sexist or not. Now I have issue with that test, not because of what it is trying to test, but the way it does it. That’s a topic for an entirely different time. Right now what concerns me is the way writers deal with sensitive issues such as race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation.

Race I think I have handled. I grew up in a town that was predominantly white, but not exclusively. I consider myself blind to race, as in I do not treat anyone different because of how they look. I never have. I wasn’t raised that way. I am very race conscious. I know racism exists and I deplore it in all its forms. No one should have to experience that. I have filled my writing with a variety of races and if they were every to turned into movies (I know it’s a pipe dream, but no writer can help it) and cast according to how I see the characters, there wouldn’t be many roles for white people.

But it has come to my attention, through some of the things that have been happening, that my treatment of gender may be a little too close to how I was raised. There have been few working women in my family and there are few in my stories. An oversight I intend to correct. As I have pondered just how this came about, I have reached the conclusion it is because I have followed the advice and written what I know. No bad intention on my part, but the things that influenced me when I was young, and from which I continue to be inspired, tend to be male dominated. Just about everything I watched or read is male centric.

It is odd. I was raised by women (with few strong male figures in my life) and I portray women as people with their own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve even been told that when I write female protagonists that they are stronger characters than my mail protagonists. Even so, the ideas I come up with for stories lack many women characters. Men and women share this world 50/50. The characters in my stories should follow the same split, but I was well into my fourth novel when I realized what I was doing.

And this applies to how I portray sexual orientation. I knew of no one who was not straight when I was growing up. I had some good influence from one of my favorite writers on the topic, but found religion for a while and was quite against it for a while until I realized 90% of the stuff they were feeding me was untrue. It took me a while to come back to a better place and I consider myself to be very forward thinking. I support marriage equality and early detection of gender identity (so a young person can get hormone therapy before hitting puberty so their body can develop as the gender they see themself as). But because this is something I have little experience in, I am hesitant to write characters like this because of that advise to write what I know.

So we come to today and my writing, and that of many people, which does not correctly reflect our world or our beliefs because we are writing what we know. It is drilled into us and I see that advice, while great for looking for a genre or story idea, is horrible advice when it comes to populating our stories. Our world had changed considerably and we need to change with it. Not just in our beliefs, but in the characters we fill our stories with. No, I may not be comfortable writing about a gay or transgender character, but I need to expand my horizons and learn and grow. No, I may not know enough right now, but I can learn, study, ask questions, seek advice, make new friends, etc.

So I propose a corollary to Write what you know. That is, if you don’t know it, learn it. And don’t stop with what society sees as issues. Imagine your own. In speculative fiction we have opportunities to imagine things that may never be reality, but it can let us explore these issues. We can make our writing a platform for equality for all while telling damn good stories. In fact some of the best writing has a clear message.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Bye Bye, Mary Sue

Writers are often faced with an issue when creating characters – believability. We have to balance the task of creating real, fleshed out characters with what we need to tell the story in the space allotted. Some are better at it than others. Those who have failed have led to some interesting character tropes. In particular is the character labeled Mary Sue.

Before I get into what makes a Mary Sue, I should first cover the goals and desired character tropes that it is sometimes confused with. Hopefully if you are reading this, you are familiar with the term ‘trope’, but just in case, a troupe is a convention or device a writers uses that will be immediately familiar to their audience. Some of the notable character tropes are the hero, the old mentor, the damsel in distress. Writers use them to best effect when they use a trope as a skeleton to build a fully fleshed character on. One of the desirable tropes is the Everyman trope. The Everyman is a normal person, someone the audience can relate to. They are used to great effect in many ways in a story, but have come to prominence as the protagonist. A proper Everyman is well rounded, fallible, not particularly heroic, but someone who can make it through adversity. They key to good fiction is to take a character trope and produce a realistic, well rounded character.

And then you have a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a miss of the Everyman trope. A Mary Sue masquerades as an Everyman, but where an Everyman has flaws and seems real, a Mary Sue is almost too perfect and too successful. Thing come too easy for a Mary Sue. If you have every played role-playing games, a Mary Sue plays with loaded dice. This trope was really born in fan fiction, but you can find them almost anywhere. Everything seems to go their way and yet they pass themselves off as completely normal. Readers wait for them to crash and they never do. I really shouldn’t just limit this to written fiction as it applies equally well to moving pictures, but even they have a script written by someone. Whether it is a reader taking the words and building a character in their mind or an actor performing the part, you still have a writer behind it.

I would pin the difference between an Everyman and a Mary Sue as failure. You expect and get failure from the Everyman. From a Mary Sue you will never get real failure. What does it mean to fail? Well, in the extreme it means death. But it also means you lose the love, you can’t save someone important, you can’t succeed at every step and have to try again. Failure builds character. It also lets readers connect with the character. What it boils down to is that with the Everyman, success is not guaranteed and usually not fully achieved. With a Mary Sue, they are going to succeed and get just about everything they want. For an Everyman, success comes with a price or is incomplete. For a Mary Sue, there is little price and it is complete (unless the writer saved something for a sequel).

The Mary Sue is like this because the trope comes from wish fulfillment. The writer wants what they character gets. It is a fantasy where everything goes the right way. In good fiction, as with life, few things come that easy. The Mary Sue character has everything come easy and the story just lacks something. It may be action packed, and a thrill ride, but there is no real danger, not sense that failure is imminent. By creating this sort of character, the writer has diminished their work. That said, parody and comedy have different rules. I don’t write that way, but the only time a Mary Sue can work to good effect is when the purpose of the story is different. For normal dramatic fiction, a Mary Sue is a bad thing.

The Mary Sue trope is not always a deliberate thing. Usually it is done on accident by someone who has yet to acquire their full set of writing skills. We can forgive a budding writer for falling for this trap. It is an easy fix. But when you have someone who eschews the fix and keeps doing it, you just have a bad writer. A writer needs to have a reason for everything. If you want to put in an Everyman, they need to have flaws and failure. If you have a comic purpose, you might have need of a Mary Sue. A writer needs to know their craft and use the tools and tropes that are called for to best meet the expectations of the reader. A reader of serious fiction will read a Mary Sue story and hate it or be totally bored.

Eliminating Mary Sue characters (except for those rare instances when they serve a purpose) is one of the first things a new writer needs eradicate. It is one of those things that separates the amateurs from the professionals. Few other character tropes are so fully tied to bad writing as the Mary Sue is. Part of that is the trope’s birth in fan fiction and the wish fulfillment of the fledgling writer. I did it. It is the hallmark of a writer who has yet to learn that to make fiction interesting, you have to put your characters through hell. You also don’t want to just insert problems for problem’s sake, but that is a post for another time.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Staying Creative

This is a season when it is hard to stay creative. At least for me. Too many family events going on to keep the writing going. Then it is hard to get back to it.

Well, I have no good answers as to how to stay creative. In many ways it is kind of a question. What I find works best is to just dive back in as soon as possible. I've managed to meet every November writing goal I've set for myself, including this year, but the early months of the year have always been my least productive time for writing. I'm hoping this years is an exception.

I have plenty of goals for the year. I am working hard to finish one novel right now. I'm 3/4 of the way through it and the end is in sight. But I did take a break on another novel to write this one. So the new year sees me with several projects, including two novels to finish.

I think the one thing that does work the best for me is to keep taking the time to enjoy other people's work. It invigorates me to experience a good story. I try to turn that into energy for writing.

Staying creative is hard work. That is part of how it works. It takes work to be creative. You have to stick with it and not be an artist, but a craftsman.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Selling Your Soul

Writing is a constant struggle to maintain the balance between something intimate and something marketable. We put our soul into our work and then we turn around and have to sell it. It doesn't matter if you writer fiction, non-fiction, for movies or for books, you have to sell your writing, your soul, to someone else.

Today I stumbled across a book that deals with that singular point, selling your work. Blake Snyder takes an interesting tack on it in Save The Cat. While he is a screenwriter and his book is geared toward his industry specifically, there is a lot for any type of writer to learn. Snyder focuses on something that had crossed my mind on several occasions in the past years and that is you need to know what you are writing before you write it. Not the whole story, but the premise. To do that he asks that we answer one question BEFORE we ever start writing - What is it? He, of course, focuses on what that answer should include to be successful in Hollywood, a far tougher market than the publishing world or the self-publishing world. He focuses on irony as the key thing that draws in potential producers.

We writers of novel length fiction have different audiences with different interests. Irony is a very good hook, but it may not be the most important for every genre. Know thy genre is the critically important mantra that will help you hook the readers you want. Ultimately, not matter what you write, it has to be sold to the public, either by you or by someone you sold your work to. The public will ask "What is it?" and you need to have the answer.

The first step, before you even name your characters or pick your setting, is to get to the heart of your story. Craft a simple one line sentence, commonly called a logline. You aren't interested in who at the moment, just what. The what is the foundation of your story, even if you are writing a biography.

Once you have the what is it is time to add in genre and who. Genre colors everything. You can have a story about a ship captain, but knowing that it is a modern cruise ship in a murder mystery, a future spaceship, a nineteenth century whaler, or a ship carrying a magical item to save the world. Genre colors the conflict and the characters. Then the who gives us a frame of reference, a way into the story. Who is this story about and why should we care about them. We novel writers have and advantage over Hollywood screenwriters in that our characters don't need to be as relatable. They don't need to be vehicles for stars and they don't have to be simple.

Next is structure and pacing. Snyder writes specifically about movies and gives a very set pacing (a tad dictatorial for my taste - but his pacing works). Novels flow at a different pace. A move screenplay is just a fraction the length of a novel (under 20k and only about 150 words per page) so there is less room to play with pacing. In a novel we have 4 or more times the length to work with and can weave much more complex stories so the structure is not nearly as set. But the pacing needs to be just as consistent. Movies are commonly considered to be structured in 3 acts. Novels are more like 9. You can have multiple highs and lows that build to the final climax and denouement. There is more time to delve into characters, large and small. Still, you don't want to get side tracked. You still need to stay focused on that idea you crystallized in the logline.

The nice thing is that this works for planners and pantsters. For planners, you can go a step further and plan out your structure and fill in the details. For pantsters, you have only created the kernel of the story and are free to wander to your ending, but you must keep pacing in mind as you do so. Some of the suggestions Snyder has can help, even if you don't want to preplan where you are going, you can set goals, such as in an 80k story, by the time you reach 40k, you should be halfway through your story and should be well into the problem. On the advice of Isaac Asimov (the essays from Gold), I always plan my ending so I know where I am going, but I leave how I get there up in the air.

But no matter what you write or how long it is, if you are serious about making writing your profession you will need to hawk you wares once you have your project finished. To do that, you need to have a clear image of what your story is about, who it is about, and what genre it fits into. One trick that I have learned but not yet mastered is that in trying to find a taker for your story, you don't have to be very precise in your logline/hook or summary. You want the person on the other end to read your story and everything needs to be designed to do that. These aren't skills that come easy to most writer, but doing these things up front will give you a better chance. If you create the basic logline first and then embellish it with the who and genre of your story (and then stick to that as you write), you will have the best possible tolls to gain the readers you want. This piece of your soul called a novel needs to be read and the better you can explain the what and who to potential readers, the easier it is to sell to them.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Where To Begin...

One issue that commonly plagues writers is where to begin a story. The standard advice of beginning when the action starts or to start with an action scene doesn't always lead to good results. I will attempt to put down my thoughts on the subject in a way that I hope will be helpful.

The good news is that you don't have to find your beginning when you start writing. Sometimes it can be more helpful to your overall story if you go back and fix it after you have the ending to your story ironed out. For those who outline in depth, you might just have enough of your story before you begin your first draft, but getting in and writing it might still give you cause to go back and edit your beginning later.

The trap many fall into is equating staring your story with action to starting it in the middle of an action scene. That is the wrong sort of action. It might work for some stories, but for others it can set a incorrect image of the story. If you aren't delivering hard hitting action scenes all through your story, you probably don't want to start with one. No, the meaning of starting with action is to start with your first character doing something. It's supposed to be an action verb, not an action scene. It doesn't matter how mundane it is, but the verb should not be static. Looking in mirror is not action. Lounging in bed is not action. Driving is, opening a door, even waking up or some life event works. Visit your favorite books and see how they start. Chances are it isn't with a fast paced action scene.

What is that moment that is the best beginning? It is the moment when things change. It could be as seemingly insignificant as a blown interview or cancelled appointment or as eventful as a birth, death, marriage, or car accident. Think about it like alternate realities. What is the point where this story breaks off from all possible other stories. Then find the first interesting thing that happens. Often the very first scene will be the change, but at other times, it has already happened. Such as a couple agree to sell their house and move, but the first scene is their final walk-through of the house - the moment that sale becomes final, at least for the characters if not the bank. In the first Star Wars movie (Episode IV) the pivotal moment is when the plans are stolen, but it doesn't impact our characters until Leia gives the plans to R2-D2 during the epic battle over Tatooine. In The Hobbit, that moment is when Gandalf chose Bilbo to be the fourteen's member of Thorin's party, but we don't start the story until Gandalf puts a mark on Bilbo's door on the day of the gathering. And this is nothing new. Jane Austen started Pride and Prejudice with a conversation about Netherfield Park being rented at last, the day Elizabeth Bennett learned of the event that would change her life.

Also, if you like to be a bit more realistic, sometimes those early moments on the path to the conflict are not always that interesting. Maybe the key moment happened some months ago, but only now do things that make for a good story pick up. The key is to know what the pivotal moment is and how your characters get involved. One way is to have the opening scene be when another character gets involved. George Lucas used the two droids as his vehicle for moving the story. They are technically secondary characters, but they are the story link between Leia and Luke.

Once you lock in where to begin, the question becomes how to begin. That really depends on your story. But no matter what the story, you have to keep in mind two things. First, get the reader's attention and get them hooked by your story. Second, every story should build to the ultimate climax. You don't want to start with something so big and epic that the rest of your story can't live up to it. Now if you are going to tell a big epic war story, like Star Wars, you can start with a battle. If your character is in the military and a particular battle is crucial to the start of his story, then that works. What you don't want to do is make the opening scene bigger than the payoff later supports. You don't need big to snag an audience, what you need is something intriguing. Something that catches their interest. Movement and action verbs are just one of many tricks to do that. Mystery is another.

Like with just about every aspect of being a writer, the best education is to read and read widely. Step out of your comfort zone. Say, like me, you love science fiction and fantasy. On occasion, pick up a historical fiction, a mystery, a spy novel, or a chicklit. It will enrich your writing and let you in on what other types of writers are doing. I've found some pretty great books that way. While reading for enjoyment is always a good thing, as a writer, you really need to do more. You need to pay attention to how the plot unfolds, where they start the story, how the opening scene catches you, how the conflict builds and morphs and moves to the climax. There are many ways to structure a story and the more ways you know, the more widely you are read, the more depth your stories will have.