Monday, December 10, 2012

Letting Characters Speak for Themselves

I am nearly finished with a series by Michael Sullivan called Riyria Revelations. I am not much of a fantasy reader, but I have thoroughly enjoyed this series, mostly (I think) because his story does not completely rely on magic, but instead uses it on occasion to help the characters. Overall, the characters do most of the work themselves.

But the real reason I am posting today is to praise his technique. Not only is the story really enjoyable, but it is also well written. I have a lot of respect for Sullivan because he is a self-taught writer, having learned from the masters. And who are better teachers than that?

He gets so many things right that I could go on for pages and pages. But I won't.

My focus today is how he deals with info dumps. At some point or another, we all have to provide more information to our reader for him/her to fully grasp our story. The tricky part is integrating it into the story rather than making it feel like a "dump" of information.

Sullivan is masterful at this, but I'm going to describe one place in particular that I was especially impressed with.

His story is set in approximately medieval times (as many fantasy stories are). At one point, he describes a hunt using falcons and hawks. Now a less experienced writer would easily bog the story down in technical definitions and explanations, but Sullivan lets his characters explain the event for him. And what is most impressive is that it doesn't sound forced, out of character, or unnatural.

He has a character named Amilia that, through a series of events, has recently been made a noblewoman. When we first met her, she was a scullery maid. For her first time, she is attending a hunt, and she is absolutely terrified. It's her first time on a horse, first time riding side-saddle, first time trying to impress a man, a first time doing a whole bunch of things. Sullivan lets her educate the readers as she educates herself.

The handler steps up and asks her what kind of bird she would like to use for the hunt. She flounders and asks what he would recommend. Having never been asked that before, he recites traditions indicating such-and-such bird is usually used for this rank or that rank, etc. Still unsure which to pick, she is grateful when another noblewoman steps in and says, "She will be using Murderess."

The handler brings a glove and then the bird, and Amilia is terrified. She has no idea what to do with the creature or how to participate in the hunt, not to mention the bird's gigantic talons. Enter, the beau of the story, who happens to be a knight. And conveniently, he had not planned on participating in the hunt, so he had left his own bird at home. Thus he can focus all his attention on Amilia and teaching her what to do.

I think the other strategy Sullivan uses that makes this scene so effective is how he plays on both the technical information, and the emotions of Amilia as it progresses. We see her fear of making a fool of herself both in front of all the other nobles, and in front of this particular knight, whom she loves. We see her struggle to hang on to the horse (and even falls off backwards at one point) and is uncomfortable and unstable in the side-saddle position. We see her terror of being gouged/ by the bird, then her wonder at how relatively light the animal is. We see her fear of killing her bird when it lands in the water. Finally, we see her excitement as she shows off her two or three quail she caught. And the whole time we are experiencing this event with Amilia, various other more knowledgeable characters are explaining to her (and thus to the reader) what to do and how the hunt works.

Brilliant. Just brilliant. If only we could all write so fluidly...

Friday, November 30, 2012

NaNoWriMo Conclusion

This is just to let you all (if you didn't already) that I suck. I utterly, completely, and fully failed at NaNoWriMo.

13,155 out of 50,000. 26%. A miserable low "F." 438 words average per day.

What a horrible attempt. Now, if you included all my revision work, emails, lesson plans, and all that, I'm probably pretty close to that 50,000 words. But I didn't because that is stuff I do every day, and NaNo feels like (to me) it's supposed to be something "special" or extra.

However, I did get more consistent in my writing. I have a hard time waking up early in the morning, but I did that more often than I have recently.

So maybe it wasn't a total bust after all?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Election Results

I realize that the elections were a week ago, but I'm just getting around to posting my thoughts about it.

First of all, I want to let you in on my political views, few though they may be. (I'm not much of a fan of politics in general, but I try to do my homework at election time.) In the 2008 election, I voted for Obama, and I believe he has done a pretty decent job in his four-years term. He was given an exceptionally difficult economic situation and did the best he could with it, I believe. My husband told me about a book he read called On the Brink by Henry Paulson. Paulson is a former Secretary of the Treasury who served under both Bush and Obama. He tells the story of our nation's economic state and that we were literally hours from bankrupting our country several times. According to my husband, Paulson states that both Bush and Obama approached their respective presidential situations intelligently, asking relevant questions, and making difficult decisions that were right for the country. Now I realize my information is a bit second-hand and I need to read the book myself, but I'm pretty confident that what my husband shared with me is accurate. (He has a finance degree, MBA, and enjoys politics/economics a whole lot more than I do.)

I have nothing but respect for Obama and I think he deserves that from every American, whether they actually like him or not. For example, he has attempted to revamp the health care system. I am not going to argue whether its current format is correct or not; I think there are still some flaws to it. But here is why I have such great respect for Obama -- he was willing to sacrifice his career for what he truly believed was best for the people. Our current health care system is broken and has been for decades, but no one has seriously tried to do anything about it. No matter how the system would be altered, a large chunk of the population would hate the change. Therefore, no politician was willing to make the change. No politician, that is, except Obama. Name me one other politician who was willing to put the people before his/her own career.

Now, having said all that, I voted for Romney in this last election. My reasons are not because I thought Obama was the wrong candidate, but that Romney was the right one for the right time. I had a difficult time deciding which candidate to vote for, and after discussing the options with my husband, I agreed with his assessment. For the most part, I don't think that practice of policies would be much different with either man in office, though the wording may be. For example, Obama will probably tweak the health care system to "make it better." Romney would probably "repeal" it, but in actuality just tweak it also. After all, it was based in large part upon the same system he established in Massachusetts.

But here's where the difference lies, I believe. Romney has a strong and rather ruthless business background. Now that we are out of the worst of the recession, our country needs to fix some things to mitigate the next one. That means trimming some fat out of the system. We need to get rid of superfluous positions, reduce expenditures, and better balance the budget. I believe that Romney has the experience to be able to accomplish that, and that is why I voted for him.

Here's the real reason I wanted to post: I am tired of the crap flying around the Internet about the winner of this election. I live in a state so red it bleeds, and the predominant religion matches that of Romney. I read through many Facebook posts following the election, and I was absolutely appalled at the lack of Christianity flying around. The basic sentiment was "Now we are all going to Hell."

Really? Are you that immature?

Now if we lived in a country that was more oppressive, I could understand that sentiment. But come one, people, we live in one of the best countries in the world. And if we were really that oppressed, there would not have even been an election; our political leader would have just staged a coup.

I find it all rather pathetic.

I find it pathetic that people must denigrate the opinion of other people after they have expressed that opinion.

I find it pathetic that people complain about the ineffectiveness of our democracy. Well, hello people. Newsflash: we never were a democracy. For whatever reasons (I haven't studied enough to understand the perceived benefits), our forefathers established our country as a republic, NOT a democracy. And for the long foreseeable future, it will remain as such.

And I find it especially pathetic when someone has to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper expressing concern that his/her child came home from school because the other students had repeated the venom spewed by their parents, and the child was terrified that he/she was going to Hell.

How about we all just take a deep breath and grow up a little. There is a way to disagree with a choice or decision without being downright rude. I especially appreciated two posts I read. One was a bit cheeky still, but it asked for reasons to be positive Obama would be in office for another 4 years. But what I appreciated about that post was that the author insisted no bashing on the political party -- only positive comments. But my favorite post was one that stated that he did not agree with the election results, but that he would still continue to pray for and support our President. A-Men.

So please, please, please, let us all act like mature adults. No, we are not going to Hell. No, Obama is not the devil incarnate. And no, you do not have to agree with the election decision. But you should accept it. Because whether you like it or not, our country elected Barack Obama for another term in office, and I have a firm belief that he will do the best job he is capable of. So we should all give him that benefit of our doubt.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Day 1 of NaNoWriMo

Today is the first day of NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month. For the first time, I'm going to attempt to participate this year. But with a slight modification. I'm going to aim for the 50,000 word goal, but not necessarily all on one piece of writing. I'll be working primarily on my medieval novel, but I'm also going to include blog posts, stories, or other writing that I do toward the word count.

In order to reach the goal, I need to write about 1667 words per day, or approximately 5-7 pages. That includes weekends. Without weekends, I'll need to write 2273 words per day, or 7- 10 pages. Whew. That's a lot of writing. I'm not exactly sure when I'm going to have time to do it all, particularly with school and the kids, but I'm sure going to try. And I'm going to try and keep you up-to-date on my status. After all, that counts too.

Just one question: do lesson plans count too?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Rule of K.I.S.S.ing

Kissing to some means a strange ritual in which lips of two different people press together, creating suction, so that when the lips separate, it makes a loud noise. It is used as a symbol of love between partners.  Or some people will kiss the cheek as a sign of affection for someone.

Then there's the band KISS, a great rock group with some pretty freakish make-up (who are all really old men now).

But in writing, kissing takes on a different, though no less significant, meaning. K.I.S.S. stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. You could also use more vulgar language, but I (generally) don't cuss, so in my world it is "Stupid."

It used to be that the written word was often a forum in which a person could show off their intelligence. The less their audience understood, the smarter the author was. That has vastly shifted today.

Amazingly, writers actually want their readers to understand what they are saying. That's part of the reason for writing conferences -- to learn how to tell things in a way that others understand it (and connect with it, true). And not surprisingly, if a reader takes the time to read something, they actually want to understand it.

So what does this mean for you as a writer? K.I.S.S. When a shorter or more easily understood word works as well as a large one, use the smaller one. Make sure your sentences are easy to follow.

Now does this mean you cannot use sophisticated language or complex constructions? Well...no.  But just in moderation. Especially with the advent of e-readers, it's relatively easy for a person to look up a word they don't know, but if they are looking up every two words, the whole point of what you've written gets lost in a long litany of definitions. And if you want a long and complex sentence, make sure you fully understand the complexities and implications of various forms of punctuation to help guide your reader through your thought process. And for heaven's sake, surround it with simpler, shorter sentences. That's just good writing.

I remember learning several years ago that most writing for the general public (mass books, newspaper articles, etc.) is written on about the 8th-grade level. That means that the complexity of the sentences (primarily) and the vocabulary (sort of) can be understood by an eighth grader. Most often the test used is called the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test, which is a mathematical formula which uses the number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per word. Of course there are always exceptions, like The Wall Street Journal prides itself on being a more sophisticated newspaper, and technical journals are naturally going to be more difficult.

In one of my classes during the 2004 elections, a student analyzed the speeches of the political candidates. I cannot remember which candidate it was, but one of them started the political season with grade 13 speeches, and ended with grade 8 speeches. Obviously, he quickly learned that if he wanted his message to be understood, he needed to simplify it. For interesting facts about this year's speeches, visit here. As I don't want to get into any political debate here, I'll let you decide which statements of fact are good and which ones are bad. I personally think there are good and bad points on both sides of the party system.

But speaking of political speeches, my absolute favorite is the Non-Slanderous Political Smear Speech by Bill Garvin. Not only is this thoroughly entertaining (keep a dictionary nearby to get the full humor in the speech), but it effectively illustrates my argument for K.I.S.S.ing. Just as a small taste of the speech (you really ought to read it yourself): "His uncle was a flagrant heterosexual," and "And his own mother had to resign from a women's organization in her later years because she was an admitted sexagenarian."

On a related side note, did you know that you can actually check your readability level in Word and Outlook? I just discovered this, and it's kind of fun. In fact, I copied this post into Word and checked it; it's at an 8.7 grade level. Right about where I "should" be. Here are the full instructions to check your own writing, but basically, go in to the SpellChecker, then click on Options (Proofing Options) and click on the box for Readability Statistics. Then run SpellChecker, and when it is finished, it will pop up a dialog box with all your document info.

So if you want someone to understand what you are writing (and I think we all do), remember the Rule of K.I.S.S.ing.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Results of LUW Contest

I went to the League of Utah Writers Fall Round-Up a couple of weekends ago, and while there, they had the awards ceremony for their annual writing contest.  I'm happy to announce that I did receive an award.

I entered a themed short story that I was really quite proud of, especially since I struggle with short stories.  I had high hopes for it.  Unfortunately, it did not win anything.  :(

But, I also entered the first chapter of my newest novel, Dazzling Demons.  I received a 3rd Honorable Mention for it.  Sadly, I was not as excited at the time as I should have been.  I mistakenly thought that everyone got an "award," so since I was the 3rd H.M., it just meant I was at the bottom of all the entries.  It wasn't until I received nothing for my story that I realized it actually meant something.

Of course, it is not as high an award as I would have liked, but it gives me a lot of hope for my writing and my story.  I was competing against people who have been published, are professional writers, and have been writing for years.  To receive any kind of award means there is a lot of potential hidden there.  And this is only the second time I have entered this contest.

On a related side-note, there was a gentleman there who astounded me.  His name is Chadd VanZanten, and he won TONS of awards.  I think he won awards in nearly every category, and there were probably close to 15 categories.  And it wasn't just one award; each category had between two and six winning entries.

What astounded me the most was that he had time to write that much.

He entered probably between 25 and 30 entries.  He owns an editing company, so it is closely related to and part of his job, but still.  I can't even get one novel finished being written in a year, and he can produce countless polished pieces.  Where does he find the time?

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Value of Professional Organizations

I am a member of the League of Utah Writers. One day in my critique group, the question (in not so many words) came up as to what was the value of being a member? Some of my group members complained that they had already heard everything, their local chapter didn't share anything interesting, and the group tried to get them involved as soon as they showed up.

I've had several weeks to consider their perspectives and these are my thoughts about the importance of being part of a professional group:


  1. The most selfish (and in many cases, basic) reason is because it looks good for you. Agents/Editors are overwhelmed with submissions these days from people who think they are the next Stephanie Meyer, JK Rowling, or John Grisham. Frankly, they don't have the time to sift through all the crap. So, when a query letter indicates that this author is a member of a professionally recognized organization, the author automatically jumps to probably the top 5% of potential clients. Being a member of a professional organization indicates the author is serious about his/her writing, and they have already fixed a lot of the amateur problems because they've already learned how to recognize them.
  2. I agree that I've "heard it all."  I've been involved long enough that I rarely learn anything new. But sometimes there are new perspectives from an author that leads me a different direction. And not everyone has heard it all yet, so it is a good opportunity to share and learn from each other.
  3. I really enjoy being a part of the organization because of the friendships I've gained. My husband is really supportive of my writing, but he's not a writer, so he doesn't quite understand the difficulties or problems. Now some of you say, "Well, I'm in a critique group, and that fulfills my need to talk with other writers." That is true, but most of the time, successful critique groups have members that are approximately on the same skill level. Professional organizations have members of all abilities, including those who have more experience than you do. I've gained a lot of wisdom, knowledge, and advice from these more experienced writers. And let's be honest -- this is an industry that is very much about who you know more than what you know. A recommendation from the right person can make all the difference in the world.
  4. And finally, my chapter also struggles a bit with finding willing leadership, and so we do try to get people involved. The biggest problem seems to be either finding "time" (don't we all struggle with that?) or feeling incompetent. But I guess I don't have much tolerance for someone who says they don't enjoy the topics when they are unwilling to help. One who is in a leadership position has the opportunity to mold the group in the direction they would prefer to see. Also, I have served as President of my local chapter for a about a year and a half, and my service there has provided opportunities to further strengthen my resume, including professional presentations, and other leadership roles.
So, get involved.  If not for yourself (and I promise, there are benefits for everyone), then for the other less-experienced writers who could learn from you.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Let Me Be Brief...

I was recently introduced to a website called http://brevitymag.com/.  This website is a collection of nonfiction essays.

If you are anything like me, you find it exceptionally difficult to write "short" things.  (That's why I write novels and not short stories.)  This is a great collection of masters of the brief, but meaningful, writing.  I know I will refer to it frequently as examples of ways to improve my own writing.

As Shakespeare said, "Brevity is the soul of wit."  (I always appreciate the joke that the character who spoke this line is a pompously over-talkative individual.)

Perhaps that is one of the reasons I struggle with creating effective humor in my writing...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mind Your "e"s and "i"s

A phenomenon has been circling around the globe the past few years that I find rather amusing.  I'm talking about the overusage of "e" and "i" before words.

It all started with a couple of new terms that came into regular usage maybe a decade or two ago. With the advent of the Internet, suddenly we could receive e-mail -- a useful term to describe the notes and messages directed to us electronically.  Then a few years later a company named Apple introduced a new product called the iPod  that utilized a music program called iTunes (notice -- lower case "i," upper case next letter).  I have no idea, but I am assuming Apple used the "i" because it sounded near to "my" but was catchier. Or a more "official" answer might be this one. It makes sense, but I know better than to believe everything I read on the Internet too.

Now I can e-file my taxes while perusing the e-text of the world's e-commerce. I can also find out how much e-money my e-business is making.  And if I need a little R&R, I can always catch up on the latest e-book in my EZ chair.

Really?

But the funniest one to me is how many companies are trying to link themselves to the Apple branding. I can appreciate how Apple, Inc., has continued to set itself apart with its "i" use, such as iPhone, iPad, etc.  But lots of non-Apple companies are trying to jump on the band wagon. Now I can search my iGoogle for iSAFE products, while listening to iHeartRadio with my iLogic headphones.  And iLuv that I can use my iEraser to clear my iTV of iDocs. (Alright, I realize I didn't refer to all those "correctly," but my point is still the same.)

So since when did "i" and "e" become the cool new kids on the block? Companies believe that if they throw an "i" or an "e" before their product name, suddenly their sales will triple. It's unfair to Apple and ridiculous for the rest of us.

Pretty soon iWill be e-ating e-meat with an iFork, while iWrite my e-girlfriend/e-boyfriend an iLetter with an e-keyboard about iSchool and e-babies.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Advice for a Query Letter

A couple of months ago in my writing group, we applied the advice by Kelley Lindberg in a query letter workshop. I took in a query letter that I thought was a pretty decent first draft, but quickly realized it needed a lot of work. But doesn't everything?

Of course they gave me specifics to fix, but they helped me realize some things that are more general to any query letter. Mostly, through their questioning, they helped me understand my own story better.

First of all, I thought my opening paragraph was fairly intriguing, but quickly discovered it absolutely was not accomplishing my purpose. I had written, "Late medieval England is not the place to find a love triangle between a peasant girl, a nobleman's son, and a prince...or is it?" I was trying to show that my character was unconventional, but that opening paragraph did not capture that for my audience.

Instead, my group suggested I use a specific scene that would capture her character. Near the beginning of the story, Anna punches a bully in the nose, whom she later finds out is a friend of a prince. My group suggested making her actually punch the prince, which I am still debating about for a couple of reasons. But they definitely agreed this should be the scene for the opening paragraph because it would quickly capture the tone of the entire story, as well as the personality of the character.

Where I received the greatest understanding in my own story is when they asked about the inner and outer conflicts. Not every story needs both, but stories are definitely stronger and more interesting if both are present.

In some sense of my story, because of the time period, my conflicts are actually in conflict with each other even. My outer conflict, the one that everyone else sees, is that Anna must take care of her family all by herself. Her parents are elderly and ill, so they are little help. She is a female peasant in medieval England, so her acceptable behavior is limited. She must act outside the acceptable limits in order to care for her family.  Thus everyone else in her village hates her for her abilities. My inner conflict is that Anna desires to be accepted and loved for herself. But very few people can look past her unorthodox behavior.

Through this workshop, I have discovered that a good letter illuminates your story sometimes in a way that nothing else can. The trick is to get someone else see that too when they read your letter.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Power of Good Dialog

I have a friend who got me interested in a graphic novel series: Fables by Bill Willingham. It is a series that supposes all fablekind was forced out of their lands and now have a secret society in NYC. It's a fascinating story, but most definitely for adults.

Graphic novels are not a genre I'm terribly familiar with (for those who don't know the lingo think "comic books"). Before this series, it had been years since I had read Persepolis and decades before that since I had read comics. And it is a genre that you read differently from other genres.

Because of the nature of the genre, nearly the entire story is told via dialog with an occasional time or place marker. Especially as I started reading the series, however, I read it like a novel. Meaning, I followed along from frame to frame reading all the dialog and forgetting to look at a lot of the pictures. I would kind of have to force myself to actually look at the images.

But the interesting thing was, although the artwork is amazing, I didn't really feel like I was "missing" much when I didn't look at the pictures. And that is due to the incredible writing ability of Willingham. His dialog literally told the story to me without needing extraneous information. I knew exactly what was going on, and usually which character was speaking.

Ah, that we all could be that good.

That is something that even prose (novel, short story, etc.) authors strive for. Dialog that is important and adds to story. Dialog that distinguishes characters clearly from one another. And dialog that stands by itself. Proven yet again that the experts are correct - you don't need many tags, descriptors, adverbs, or other explanations for your dialog when you just write good dialog.

Unfortunately, I don't know how to do that. I'm still trying to figure it out. Some people write great dialog where their characters really come alive. I don't think I write bad dialog, but I think I could write better...if I could just figure out the trick. I can tell you when I see good dialog, but I'm still working on how to distinguish the technical differences between good and bad. I've heard the analyses before, but applying that is completely different. But that's what a writer is here for, right? To keep striving to write better and tell better stories.  This is just one stop along a lifetime trail. Learning from masters like Bill Willingham is the best way to move forward.

Monday, June 18, 2012

How did I do that?

Today's post will be quick because I just wanted to share a realization I came to this week.Mostly I'm sharing it to see if I'm weird as a writer, or if there are other people out there like me.

So, I submitted a chapter to my critique group last week, and I actually received very little negative feedback. This was kind of surprising to me because I was a little bit nervous about this particular chapter. It dealt with a topic or idea I don't feel particularly proficient in, and a style of writing that I have no experience with. In other words, it was out of my comfort zone, and accordingly I thought it would need a lot of work. Hence, the surprise at the comments.

This has happened to me one other time on my other novel. A different topic, a different writing style, but equally unfamiliar. The comments at that point were that it was more detailed and engaging than the rest of the story.

So, two different ways to take these comments, both of which I have vacillated between. First of all, bummer that the rest of my writing obviously sucks because it needs to much work. Second of all, cool that I can write something I'm unfamiliar with well.

But the real question to me is: why? I've been thinking about that for a few days, and the only reason I can come up with is a greater attention to the writing. Most of the time I am just trying to get the story out. And it's an amazing, wonderful, awesome story...until my critiquers get a hold of it, and then I realize how much work it needs. But these unfamiliar pieces I give more focus to. I want to make sure they are just right, and they fit the "genre" I'm playing with, that I spend more time on them.  (If only I could/would spend that same amount of time on the rest of it...or even knew how for that matter.)

At least that's my working theory. Any other thoughts?

Monday, June 4, 2012

JuNoWriMo

Many of you have probably heard of NaNoWriMo, or the National Novel Writing Month. Well, if you haven't, it is a writing movement that promotes writing 50,000 words of crap in the month of November, so that you can use the other 11 months of the year to polish it up into something palatable.

Well, per my friend Jayrod's request/suggestion, I am participating with him on a local level this June. He is working on his novel, Crimes of the Umbramancer, and is behind where he'd like to be. So he came up with the idea to do his own NaNoWriMo. And as it is always easier to complete something like that with support, and he knew that I had a lot to do of my own, he invited me to join him.

So, now it is June 4, and I am just getting started. But I have a good excuse. My family has been on vacation for the last week-and-a-half. So I am getting started late, but I'm going to be strong.

My goals are slightly different for this month. I am aiming for 50,000 words, but that isn't my primary goal, and it is spread across various things. My blog post for one, and then I'll be working on two novels.

I want to accomplish a lot with my writing this summer since I will not have school and papers to correct. I am actually setting aside two blocks of time to dedicate to my writing. My early morning writing will be for blogs, critiquing, and continuing Dazzling Demons. That is my new story that I just started. I have a pretty good idea of where it is going and how I will get there, but I need to get it on paper. That also means I have some interviewing to do this summer for research.

Additionally, I am hiring a babysitter to come three times a week for two hours each day, so I can go to the library for focused, uninterrupted writing time. During that time I will be working on Roses of Chesterley, my medieval novel. As you may recall, a few months back I decided to put off the revision on it until I could focus better. Well, now is the time. So as far as my 50,000 words goes, I need to finish a major plot re-write that I am halfway through, and then revise what I have already done.

I'm excited for JuNoWriMo. It looks like it will be the most productive time for me this summer because I can already see my July filling up, and I don't have much of August until I'm back in school again. So, yes, I am aiming for 50,000 words, but more importantly to me, I am aiming for 50,000 good words. I'll keep you posted (pun intended) on how it goes and what I am accomplishing. And best of luck to Jayrod, and anyone else who is participating this month.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Avengers Characters

Yes, I was one of the $600M+ ticket sales who went and saw The Avengers last weekend.  It was a great movie.  The CGI was so amazing and seamless, it almost seemed realistic.

BUT, so I don't ruin the movie for those who have not seen it yet, I wanted to discuss the characterization that was apparent in the movie.  I'll mention a few key scenes, but I'm mostly interested in how the characters act and interact.  (And I'm sure those of who are comic afficianados will tell me how wrong I am, and that's okay, but this is my impression from the movie.)

Main Characters: Black Widow, Hawkeye, Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor.

Villain: Loki (brother of Thor)

Black Widow: Not as fully developed, perhaps because she hasn't had her own introductory movie.  Basically a bad girl turned good.  "Saved" by Hawkeye.  Great marital arts-type moves, and loves her handguns.

Hawkeye: Also not as developed, but is "brainwashed" onto the bad side at the beginning.  Wicked-awesome bow and arrows with deadly accurate aim, even over hundreds of yards.  Pretty cool because usually we see guns or swords, but I think it takes even greater skill to be so accurate with a bow and arrows.  And his arrows can have special "abilities" attached to them.

Hulk:  Anger issues (obviously).  The doctor has become a pacifist, essentially, in order to prevent himself from changing into the Hulk.  Most of the other characters are nervous and wonder how he contains himself and keeps himself from getting angry.  At the end he reveals his secret: he's always angry.  Leaves much for the viewer to figure out about him.  The doctor is so afraid of changing because he is a destroyer when he is the Hulk.

Captain America:  Trained and acts as a soldier.  Super strong, and has an indestructible shield.  Feeling exceptionally misplaced until this mission because he "died" in the '40s, and was revived today.  Takes the role as the "leader" in assigning roles.

Iron Man:  In his own words, "A genius, billionaire, ladies' man philanthropist."  Arrogant, but lovable.  (Probably my favorite character because of his personality.)  Probably the reason we still love and accept him although he is SO arrogant is because he actually has a valid reason to be arrogant.  He really is better than other people in many ways.  The other reason is because he is impeccably honest...and can afford to be so.  And ultimately, he wants to help the innocent -- and beat up the not-so-innocent.  He even takes on a slight mentoring role, though it is not the traditional manifestation of such a role, but would we expect less?  Uses technology in his suit as his weapons.

Thor:  A demigod from another planet: Asgaard.  As his description implies, exceptionally strong and nearly indestructible.  His main pursuit is justice.  Not quite arrogant, but definitely confident.  Uses his signature hammer to fly, destroy, and summon lightning.

Loki:  Thor's adoptive brother bent on exacting revenge on his brother for his father's lies.  He determines to destroy the planet Thor loves regardless of cost or consequence.  Of course, evil, but manipulative as well.  He tries to get all the heroes to destroy each other for him.  Arrogant, and thinks he deserves to be worshipped by everyone.  (Teaser:  A great scene toward the end of what the Hulk thinks about that idea.  Classic.)

So, now that you know a little bit about all the personalities of the characters, I want to describe two major scenes where these personalities interact so beautifully.  First of all, about the middle of the movie, Iron Man and Captain America capture Loki (don't worry -- it's all part of the plan).  As they are taking him back to their base, Thor comes down from Asgaard and kidnaps Loki away in order to return him to Asgaard to stand trial for his crimes.  Of course, Captain America and Iron Man are not too happy about that.  Iron Man reaches Thor first and starts fighting with him.  Basically it turns into a show of power, a "little boys' peeing contest," if you will.  Captain America has to step between them to stop their fighting, especially since they completely forgot about Loki in their pursuit of one-up-manship.  It's the basic school grounds fight.

Why I think this is a great scene is because it is the first time the heroes have to interact, and they do a terrible job at it.  They are so intent on proving their superiority to everyone else, they completely forget about what their actual job is.  And of course, everything around them gets destroyed in fantastic ways.

The second scene is the final battle scene.  I love this scene more than just for the sheer awesomeness of it, though that is definitely a part of it.  In this scene, the heroes have learned how to work together, but they also each use their particular skills and abilities in different ways.  It is the epitome of utilizing each member's strengths.

Iron Man is given the task of flying through the air and fighting the invaders that are up there.  Hawkeye is supposed to sit on top of the building and call out patterns and formations.  With his "hawkeyes," he is to be the reconnaissance resource.  He is literally the eyes for the rest of the team.  Captain America calls out each team member's assignment, like the perfect "captain-soldier" that he is.  And the Hulk's role is simple:  "Hulk, smash," to which the Hulk grins widely and takes off on his assignment.  Thor, Black Widow, and Captain America stay on the ground to fight the invaders and protect the citizens, although as the battle progresses, they adapt to the needs of the battle.

Now, this is an awesome movie, but there is another reason why I am writing about this on a writing blog.  I think the writers/creators did an amazing job at characterizing the main characters and staying true to their characters.  The story develops, and the characters kind of develop.  But it's not like a lot of movies wherein the characters grow and change.  Instead, the characters' personalities are established, but they don't change.  Rather, the characters learn how to work together while still maintaining their personalities.  And what I think is so amazing is that I think it would be exceptionally difficult to pull that off and still make the characters believable.  And they are definitely believable.

One aspect that I was astounded that they could pull off believably is how the characters interact.  Each hero is definitely an alpha personality.  This is exhibited quite obviously in the first scene I described above.  They all have problems with authority, and therefore their personalities would not work well with a leader over them all; they all want to be the leader.  As they learn to work together, what I think is amazing is that no clear leader ever really emerges.  It's as though they share the leadership role with each of the heroes covering a different aspect of the necessary story that must develop.

Although Captain America is the one who is calling out the orders at the end, it doesn't feel like he is particularly "in charge;" instead it just feels like he is trying to help organize all the others into a productive formation.  And I reiterate, I think part of why this works the way it does is because Captain America basically tells everyone to do what they are really good at.  It's almost as though he is simply reminding them of their skills and abilities.

So, after this super long post today...what does this all boil down to?  First of all, The Avengers is an awesome movie that, especially if you like action flicks, it is a definite Must-See.  Secondly, a huge KUDOS to the writers who took on the exceptionally difficult task of putting all these different characters together and keeping true to those personalities throughout the entire movie while still making the story work believably.  I could only hope to be so talented...

Monday, April 23, 2012

Why do we care about grammar?

Today's post is informative as well as asks for group participation.  I have been asked to give a basic grammar presentation for a writing conference.  But they are worried about people actually attending the presentation, so they asked me to make it more "interesting" and "exciting" than "Grammar 101."

My initial thoughts are something along the lines of "You've written the killer story with amazing characters in a beautiful world, but no one seems to catch your vision.  Is it because they cannot understand your vision?"

But what do you think? How do we make grammar more exciting?  It's a necessary part of the writing process (some would say necessary evil).  And I frequently tell my students that the reason we learn the rules of grammar is so that we can effectively break them.  And the key word there is "effectively," certainly not "randomly."

Grammar is all about creating meaning.  We do not need "grammar" per se when we speak because our voices carry our meaning for us.  (For a HILARIOUS discussion of this concept, watch Victor Borge's Phonetic Punctuation.)  But when we write, we have to find some way to make our reader think the same way we do, and the way we do that is through grammar.

We've all had that experience - you spend a lot of time and thought on an email, and just when it's perfect, you click on that little send button, and inevitably, a reply comes back within a few hours or maybe a day or two.  Your recipient is angry, insulted, confused, or otherwise not interpreting what you wrote the way you meant it.  And you are left wondering what went wrong as you furiously type an apology for the miscommunication and frantically try to think of another way of explaining what you meant.

No, we are not going to make every single thing we say perfectly understandable, but that is what we strive for.  And grammar helps us do that.  There are certain concepts we were taught explicitly as we were growing up, but most of them were internalized.  As readers, we completely understand grammar.  For example, we all know that when we are reading a conversation between two characters and a new paragraph is started, that means the second character just started speaking.  It is a visual clue we have learned to recognize and understand as readers.  But understanding grammar as a reader is very different from understanding grammar as a writer.

As a writer, you have to know that every time your speaker shifts in a story, you better start a new paragraph or your reader will be completely confused about what is going on.  And there are countless internalized examples like this.  Your job as a writer is to learn how to express outwardly the internalized knowledge.

Most of us have probably also had the experience (teachers and editors more than others) where someone has said, "Read this and tell me what you think" (in some form or another), but when you sit down to read it, you don't even know what to say because you have no idea what he/she is trying to tell you.

So grammar is not your enemy; instead it should be a very close, a very dear friend.  It is what helps you tell your reader about this amazing idea you have.  It is what guides your reader along the path of your story.  When you have a strong sense of grammar, it is what gets your story noticed.  It is that funny thing that when used most powerfully, it is the most subtle.  No one says, "Oh, such-and-such author has such great grammar."  But it is easy to say, "Such-and-such author has terrible grammar."  And then the complaints usually continue from there: "I'm so distracted by all the grammar mistakes, I can't even read the story..."

And while we're at it, let's be realistic.  Life seems to get busier and busier for each of us.  Why wouldn't agents and editors be the same?  They don't have the time to waste to correct the mistakes authors should be fixing themselves.  It is much easier and less time-consuming to take a 7/10 storyline with awesome grammar and make it a 9/10 story, than it is to take a 10/10 storyline with terrible grammar and make it presentable.  So, which story will an editor choose?  The first one.

So if you really want to sell your book, edit it.  Or if you don't have the skills to edit yourself, pay someone else to do it.  It will really be worth it in the long run.

But how do you encapsulate all those ideas into a tiny, nutshell paragraph that would make someone want to take a class on it?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Multiple Projects at Once

I think I've said before that I am the atypical writer. I don't have a proliferation of ideas floating around in my head.  Mostly the only ideas I feel are worth exploring intensively are occasional dreams that I have. So that usually means I work on one thing at a time.

Supposedly though, most writers are working on several projects at a time. I never understood how they could do that because I want to make something just right before I move on. But I had a good friend who enlightened me.

I've been working on my historical romance for a long time. Most recently I've been trying to re-write and revise different parts of it. But my friend, Jayrod (http://the1stog.blogspot.com/), helped me realize that I've been working on this so long (years) that my skills and abilities have drastically increased since I started the project. It's not that I can't make my novel perfect, because I certainly can, but it will actually take more work to polish and improve what I wrote before than it would to just start something new from scratch.

Another aspect of the revision I realized myself was that it takes me a lot of focus and concentration to revise how I want to, not to mention the time involved. I've been so worried about taking care of my family and creating lesson plans for this year of teaching that it's been hard to give the attention my revision needs.

Long story short, Jayrod convinced me to start a new novel. Mostly I just need a little break. (I'll come back to the other one in the summer when I can focus on it better.)  So I just started a paranormal romance - at least that's the best genre description I could come up with for it.  And I'm really excited about it. Jayrod also helped me talk out some ideas and possibilities for the storyline...and it's going to be AWESOME. It centers around an evil necklace. Intrigued? I'll keep you posted.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Book Covers are Crucial

I've always heard that a good book cover design is crucial to a successful novel. It should be carefully crafted to relate to the story, but not give away all your secrets. And of course, it must be eye-catching. I always knew that the cover was important, but I didn't realize how important until recently.

I have a four-year-old who loves to read, but he cannot read alone yet. However, he really likes to go to the library and pick out some of his own books. I take him to the library, he grabs a basket, we walk over to the children's section, I plop down on a bench, and he starts looking for books. This usually involves him finding a small section and shelf and stopping there.

He can't read the titles, so his only criteria for picking a book is looking at the cover. He doesn't even open it up to look at the pictures inside. He pulls a book off the shelf, looks at it, and sets it in his basket. He continues to do this, pulling from the same location until I tell him he has enough books. Our last trip took us 20 minutes total, including driving time.

For him, if it has an interesting cover, it will be an interesting book.

Now, as we get older, we certainly look at other criteria, such as recommendations, the teaser on the back cover, or a favorite author. But much of this early fascination with the cover lingers. If it didn't, why would we have an entire industry of professionals working to make a book cover perfect?

So pay attention next time you choose a book to read. How much credence do you give simply to what it looks like, regardless of what it says? If the cover doesn't catch your eye, do you even take time to read the teaser on the back?