to each their own

… said the old lady, as she kissed the cow.

I have no idea where that saying comes from. My grandmother used to say it a lot, but as far as I knew, she wasn’t interested in kissing cows. The idea, of course, is that everyone has their own personal tastes, and just because mine differs from yours doesn’t make one worse than the other.

This kind of goes back to the Shakespeare thing I was talking about earlier. If you really like something, and someone whose opinion you value doesn’t like it, then most humans will jump to a conclusion — either the thing is bad and I’m immoral/stupid for liking it, or the thing is good and the other person is stupid for disliking it.

And then there’s the mirror, where you really dislike something, and someone whose opinion you value likes the thing. Either the thing is good and I’m stupid for disliking it, or the thing is bad and the other person is immoral/stupid for liking it.

It’s more comfortable to think that someone else is wrong, and it’s easier to sling insults than to think critically, whether you like or dislike whatever film/book/tv show/etc is currently being dissected. So no matter what your initial position is, it soon becomes clear that everyone else is not only an idiot, but a dangerous idiot, that needs the full arsenal of scathing wit at your disposal.

And then, there are the folks who just enjoy being mean to others. They seem to come out of the woodwork a lot more online than in realtime. While the “block” button is always a good friend, somehow the consequences aren’t as severe online when people act like a jerk. Get kicked out of one forum and you can always join another one.

Me, I stay in the back and concentrate on the Tolkien/Potter stuff. Those folks are pretty low key. They got most of that stuff out of their system back in 2004.

the Monica Chronicles

I really like writing. I mean, obviously. I’m looking to make a living out of it. And whether it was my job or not, I’d still be doing it, because I just really like playing around with words, making or borrowing characters and spinning them through stories. (Yes, I write fanfiction. Hush.) I’ve mentioned before that I keep a little black book – or a collection, now, I think I’m on the thirteenth? – where I write down the stuff that goes on in my life. Sometimes funny quotes, occasionally rambling about the latest song or movie that wormed its way into my head, mostly just downloading whatever’s been going on in my life. I’ve been writing in these journals off and on since I was fifteen. It’s one hell of a doozy to look back at the kind of stuff you were thinking in high school, let me tell you. But it’s really cool to have a record of the ways I’ve changed and the ways I’ve stayed the same.

One thing that’s been pretty consistent about these books is that when I’m in an irregular place, I write a lot. Whether that’s a visit to my sister’s college campus, or holiday with the folks, or whatever, on the transit time I write like a Muldoon, at a greater volume than normal. Maybe because those trips are more exciting, but it’s not like those long drought intervals are exactly boring, either. I mean, just because life is relatively stationary doesn’t mean it can’t get interesting sometimes. And there’s the other aspect – like the one time I brought a video camera to a church youth group trip and spent way less time recording than I anticipated – when you’re chronicling something, you’re not actually doing it. You’re just watching.

The best middle ground I can find is to play catch-up. You spend the time when things are happening, actually participating. And then in whatever downtime you have, you write down how it went, as soon as possible, while it’s still fresh in your memory. I know there are some things from years ago that I only still remember because I had the presence of mind to write them down at the time.

Case in point: if I hadn’t recorded it, I probably wouldn’t remember that this Halloween I got to overhear – with regards to the chalk outlines drawn on our driveway – a snippet of conversation between two tween kids:

“Yeah, don’t step on the body parts, Monica.”

Priceless.

you’ve gotta work at it

It’s always been pretty easy for me to understand Shakespeare. That sounds awfully pretentious. The language of it, I mean. There are Easter eggs in there that I wouldn’t have understood without the benefit of a de jure English minor (like the fact that Macbeth was written tongue-in-cheek for King James just a few short years after the Gunpowder Plot), but the language of the plays, written as they were in Renaissance English, is fairly transparent to me now. It helps if you have an edition of the plays that has handy definitions on the verso of every page – if I recall correctly, the editions my high school used were the Folger Shakespeare Library editions – but even when I was just starting to read Shakespeare in eighth grade, I picked up on the language a lot more easily than some of my classmates did.

It also helps if you have a proclivity for language in general. I mean, I was the kid who named one of her plastic frogs Aquaculture in elementary school, and bragged about reading the dictionary for fun in middle school. (Mostly the name etymology section. Not the actual definitions. But it’s very fun to pore over the ~meaning~ of names when you’re writing awful original fiction on your parents’ crusty old Windows desktop.) And then again I also majored in French in college, and spent my senior year translating excerpts of Victor Hugo into English, so language has never been something I struggled with.

Math, though? Absolutely horrible. I had to repeat pre-algebra in middle school, and struggled through pre-calc in high school, and it was with relief that I discovered I didn’t have to take calculus my senior year, but that statistics filled the math requirement just as well. I took one (1) math course in college, and that was only because I had to fulfill a requirement there too, and you can bet that I made sure it was statistics.

Some things, you just have a knack for. Some things you don’t. I’ll never like math the same way I like language; and there are other people who feel the reverse. I’m sure if I wanted to, I could work at it and become if not comfortable then proficient in things like calculus and physics and o-chem. These things are skills that can be developed, whether you have the initial boost of talent or not. But it’s human nature to like the things you’re immediately good at more than the things you have to struggle with. And the more you like something, the more you practice it, so the better you get, so the more you like it, and so on … and vice versa. The less you like something, the less you practice, so you don’t progress as far, and then maybe you even start to hate it. I had a friend in high school who could not abide Shakespeare, because the language of it came about as easily to her as flying comes to a tortoise. I was baffled, because look at this soliloquy, isn’t it perfect? And she just wanted to know what the bloody hell Macbeth was going on about seeing a dagger for.

It’s all in how you look at things.

But here’s the thing: if you’ve got the knack, but you don’t practice the skill, you won’t get very far. And if you’ve gotten used to being automatically good at something, the first time you hit a road block – whether that’s a new subject you don’t have the knack for, or a more advanced version of what you’re already studying – boy, it sure is easy to get intimidated by failure. Whereas someone who doesn’t have the talent, but practices the skill anyway, already has that valuable experience and will chug along pretty steadily while the talented person is still trying to figure out what to do next.

A tortoise walks a mile a hell of a lot better than a flightless eagle.

NaNoWriMo

I am not officially participating in National Novel Writing Month this November. I’m not registering an account on their website, and while I have my own word count app to keep track of my projects (Writeometer, available on Google Play, if you’re curious), I’m not going to be publicly logging that word count every single day. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain … the little green one, over there, holding the mind control device. Ahem. That is to say, I don’t think any of you are interested in hearing me whine about how difficult it was to put fingers to keyboard on a Thursday evening, and mentioning plot points is kind of a spoiler even if it is for a first draft and therefore in flux. And while other people find it helpful to commiserate with a large online community, I’d much prefer to pester a handful of close friends. What else are Skype and Google Hangouts for?

But I am going to be writing a novel this month. And I am aiming for a minimum of 55 thousand words in the first draft. And, because public accountability seems to be the thing that kicks my butt into gear, I’ll be posting my weekly word count on Sundays until I finish the draft. (At which point you can bet there will be much throwing of confetti, even if I don’t do it on my blog where you can see it. As a relative novice I do still get excited every time I finish a manuscript. But that’s a post for another day.)

National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) posits that you can sit down for an hour or so and write about 1400 words in a day, every day, for thirty days, to produce fifty thousand words. To longtime veterans, this is half or one third of a novel. (Or one sixth, if you’re George R. R. Martin.) To newbies who’ve never written anything longer than 3k for a college essay, it’s Mount Everest. Perspective is one hell of a drug, as they say. Either way, the program encourages its participants to sit down and write a given amount of words, every day, for the month of November.

It’s an exercise in discipline rather than creativity, and if you’re looking to get into the business of writing, it’s good practice. Because the point of it is that the draft isn’t supposed to be perfect, it’s just supposed to be finished. That’s what a separate editing stage is for. And even if the drat you produce ends up a steaming pile of crap no matter how much you edit, who cares? You still produced something, and that 50k of crap got you 50k closer to something worth reading.

if you’re gonna break the rules …

… do it on purpose.

Because I’m more familiar with princess movies than, uh, a lot of things (what can I say: I grew up on Disney) we’re going to do the comparison using princess movies. But I’m sure you can find other examples in sci fi, or action, or any number of other genres.

Three princess movies that all contain fairytale magic, but are set in a sort of medieval/baroque/otherwise “period” era: Ella Enchanted, Cinderella 2015, and Beauty and the Beast 2017.

You know, right off the bat, that not everything is going to be realistic, because duh, there’s magic involved. At least one of the main/supporting characters is going to be inhuman. But the attitude that each of these movies takes toward that old-timey setting is very different.

You’ve got Cinderella 2015, what I’d call the middle of the spectrum. Most of the sets, the costumes, are based solidly in an 1800s French sort of style. The only obvious anachronisms are in the stepmother and stepsisters’ costumes, which are clearly done on purpose in order to show how different they are from everyone else in the story. And the fairy godmother, while she has little sparkly wings attached to her dress, is more glamorous than everyone except Cinderella — with LEDs in the skirts! — but in a way that doesn’t stick out badly, even if she only has one scene in the movie. The dialogue and setting and costumes mesh pretty well to provide that historical-feeling ambiance. (You can read a more detailed analysis of the costuming in Cinderella 2015 here.)

Then there’s Ella Enchanted, which has the fairy godmother in a mini skirt and go-go boots, and Eric Idle narrating, and Hattie as the president of the Prince Char Fanclub (zomg u guyz!), and the main character singing a Queen song during karaoke. None of this existed in the book this movie was loosely based off of, but the movie doesn’t care; it’s delightedly zooming its way through a story that can be whatever it wants, because there’s magic and elves and ogres, darn it, it doesn’t have to be realistic. The dialogue, setting, and costumes are all consistent in this regard. So the anachronisms, instead of being annoying, are entertaining. (See also: A Knight’s Tale, even though that one doesn’t have any magic involved.)

And then you have Beauty and the Beast 2017, which is very clearly trying to be modern in its sensibilities but historical in its setting and costumes, Which … really doesn’t succeed, because the modern sensibilities bleed over into the costumes, and not in a way that feels like it was done on purpose. Belle wears period clothes throughout the film except for the ballgown in the iconic scene. The contrast is pretty jarring, especially when you realize that that yellow dress wouldn’t look out of place in a high school prom; and that kind of dissonance is usually reserved for the antagonists, not the main character (c.f. Cinderella). Then you also have the dialogue, which in some moments is lifted straight from the original movie, and in some moments feels like it could have been lifted straight from the original movie, and in some moments has words straight from 2017 that just immediately ruin the moment. (At least for me: the Beast saying the phrase “too touristy” was a definite nope.)

I won’t even begin to go into the dance choreography.

The thing is, there’s always going to be something that doesn’t quite mesh with everything else. And that’s okay. But it’s like writing an essay for English class. If you want there to be a Solid Theme (i.e. Belle being “not like other girls”), then everything you do has to be related back to that theme. Make her other clothes more modern too, instead of just the ballgown. Or, if you want the solid theme to be “this could have taken place in a palace not far from Paris in the 1700s”, then even if you’re stuck on Emma Watson not having to wear a corset, you could at least make some kind of nod to the fashions of the time instead of that .. ruffled, cake-layered … thing. But the key is consistency.

I don’t care — and your audience won’t care either — whether you go full-on Research Mode and toss in as much trivia/jargon/whatever from that time period as you want, or whether everything is neon lights and karaoke. Just as long as it’s entertaining, and as long as it’s consistent.

Does it add to the story?

Sometimes a day feels like Groundhog Day (or Death Day, if you’re a horror fan or your life has hit a frustrating point); the same events repeating over and over. The lunch hour goes by too quickly, the phone conversation with the unhappy customer takes forever, the commute is a lifetime but at least you’ve got a good music playlist, et cetera.

It’s tempting to introduce a character by having them do something that happens every day in their life. Here’s Jane Doe brushing her teeth. Here’s Jane Doe making toast with jam for breakfast. Here’s Jane Doe almost forgetting her keys when she walks out the door to go to work. Here’s Jane Doe jamming out to “Billie Jean” at a red light. Here’s Jane Doe making small talk with the receptionist. Now you’ve got a great insight into Jane Doe, right? Right!

Well, that depends. Does that everyday thing (getting ready for the workday) have anything to do with the plot?

Whether you consider the plot to be a series of events (like a spy escapade or surviving a zombie apocalypse), or the development of characters (X falls in love with Y, Z accepts past trauma and moves on), the plot always has to be moving forward in some fashion.

If Jane Doe is brushing her teeth because she wants to get the taste of blood out of her mouth from a night of nefarious vampire shenanigans, then maybe it matters.

If Jane Doe makes toast with jam because that’s how her husband used to do it before he died, and she’s determined to solve his murder, then maybe it matters.

If Jane Doe almost forgets her keys before she heads out the door because she’s been having weird memory problems, and she doesn’t know why but she thinks it has to do with the mysterious stranger with the weird necklace she saw at the supermarket last Saturday, then it matters.

And if Jane Doe sees that mysterious stranger out of the corner of her eye when she’s talking to the receptionist at work — whose necklace, on closer proximity, turns out to be the symbol of a rival vampire clan — then, well.

Then you’ve got a scene that advances the plot.

Do what you can, when you can

Sorry for disappearing off the face of the earth, folks. The busy season at work started a couple weeks ago and we’ve been swamped, and we’ll probably stay swamped until Thanksgiving. Wading through ten times the usual amount of phone calls makes getting everything else done a little harder, and then coming home, well, sometimes a body just wants to veg out on the sofa and not think for a while.

A bad habit of mine is that when there’s something big I need to get done, I divide it into the fewest number of steps possible. On the one hand, simplifying things is good. On the other hand, within each big step are a zillion tiny steps, and my brain likes to gloss over the big parts and then obsess over all the tiny things I need to do. They’re all important, I insist. Every single small thing is important and I have to do all of them at once before I can move on to the next step, my God, how am I going to do this, let’s sit and stare at the tv for a while instead because just thinking about it is too stressful.

It’s not exactly the most productive way to go about things.

So I’m trying to get a little more laid back about my personal writing requirements. I don’t have to pound out 1000 words in twenty minutes, but I do have to write something. Because if I get too fixed on the word count to actually write anything, that defeats the purpose. (Yes, I know, it doesn’t make sense. It’s like hating regular sized tomatoes but loving cherry tomatoes. That’s just how I roll. Sorry.) (Not actually sorry. I’m serious about the tomato thing.)

Do what you can, when you can. You won’t be able to climb the whole mountain today, but you can get started on the foothills, and even if you don’t get halfway up, you’re still farther than you were when you started. Any progress is still progress.

We’re looking at end of September/beginning of October for Book 2. Stay tuned!

It’s all in how you look at things

In other news, I aten’t dead, just … restin’.

Perspective is probably the first thing you notice when you crack open a book. Whether it’s first-, third-, or second-person — yes, I have encountered second-person — it’s going to make an impact on the reader, and of course on the story itself. I don’t usually like first-person stories, though there have been notable exceptions (the Resurgam books by Joan Frances Turner immediately come to mind). Second-person immediately gets jettisoned, unless it’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, and I haven’t read one of those since I was in middle school.

That’s a prompt for another blog post, though. There are other kinds of perspective thay matter in a story, and those are the ones I want to focus on today.

Innocence versus experience is probably the one used most in Western literature. You’ve got Wordsworth of course, and then you also have writers like Philip Pullman who prod at the notion, unravel it, and stitch it back together to make something new. Then you’ve got the hero’s journey where a character gets dragged kicking and screaming into caring about other people. There are other shifts in perspective, but usually they can be boiled down to innocence versus experience, or selflessness versus selfishness.

And these are interesting character arcs in and of themselves.

But — and I refer back to my favorite zombie book Dust by JFT– sometimes, using a changing perspective to look on the same event (or using the audience’s different perspective) can be just as interesting, and just as thought-provoking.

In one of the flashbacks, Jessie (our undead protagonist) meets up with a group of other undeads and becomes particularly attached to Joe, a Chicago biker who died sometime in the seventies. At the time of their meeting, Joe has been undead for over thirty years; Jessie, meanwhile, is fresh out of the grave, and was just fifteen when a drunk driver killed her. So we, the audience — as well as Joe, who keeps reminding her of the age difference — know that he has a huge psychological advantage over her, even if she can pound him into a pulp just as much as any of the rest of the undead crew. Jessie, freshly dead and twitterpated, stays with Joe when she has every ability to leave, and Joe of course is perfectly happy with this outcome.

But the main story takes place nine years after Jessie died, and when she narrates this flashback, it’s from a position of experience and disillusionment. “Like I said,” she tells the audience, and we can hear the bitter wistfulness, “I was fifteen.”

It’s that darn verisimilitude at work again. We’ve all had something happen that we feel differently about years after the fact. And if we can identify that same feeling with a zombie? Then maybe the rest of the story will feel real, too.

Inspiration (2/?)

You know what inspires me? Money.

It sounds mercenary, but there you have it. I’ve mentioned before that when I dreamed of being a writer as a little kid, what I actually dreamed of was being rich without much effort. And yes, I still would like to be rich. Wouldn’t you?

The thing about money is that it’s a means to an end. As the saying goes, it’s more comfortable to cry in a Mercedes-Benz than on a bicycle.

I could have chosen any number of other ways to make money, but writing is what I picked, because I’d be doing it no matter what else I was working on, so I might as well try to make money off it. This is what is known in the business world as “freelancing”, and it can be fun, and it can also be a way for you to slam your head against the wall.

Because, whether you like it or not, whether you dress it up with a bathrobe and coffee mug or not, writing, like any other type of freelancing, is work.

Inspiration? The muse with a fluffy white dress and an enigmatic smile, who floats down from the clouds to play her harp at you? She’s a flaky piece of work that can’t be trusted. And plot bunnies can come from anywhere, but you have to corral them, or they’ll multiply and then you won’t be able to focus on anything.

If you’re going to wring a living from typing words on a screen, there has to be discipline involved. Whether the muse is there or not, you have to write. Whether the plot bunnies are multitudinous or not, you have to write. Whether you feel like slamming your head against the wall or not, you have to write.

Yeah, sometimes it feels like pulling teeth. But people who are trying to make a living, to be quite blunt, don’t have the time to get writer’s block. Because you still have to write.

And honestly, if you don’t feel like writing? If, in that miserable moment, you would rather do anything but write?

Imagine what it’ll be like, ten years down the road, if you don’t keep at it.

Imagine what it’ll be like, ten years down the road, if you do.

Like I said, money’s a heck of an inspiration.

And the wonderful thing about writing is even though you’re sitting down, it’s still a muscle. If you exercise it enough it gets easier. The one thing I can say NaNoWriMo did for me, is that it gave me the confidence to know that I could write four thousand words in one sitting. Before that I’d had no idea. So practice, and it will get easier.

And then writer’s block, and inspiration, and the rest of it? Might feel a little bit less like slamming your head into the wall.

(Non)Sympathetic Characters, Revisited

So when you’ve got a protagonist who suddenly stops being, well, the pro- type of tagonist and moseys on over to the an- side of life, in media that you’re consuming you can basically do one of two things. You can give up in disgust, or you can hate-read/hate-watch it to see if they will get what’s coming to them.

As a writer, you want to have written the character well enough that the audience will choose the latter.

It is pretty risky to set out writing a non-sympathetic character in the first place. Sometimes villains are so bad, with only enough traces of humanity for us to recognize ourselves in them, that we ferociously cheer for their demises, and reading a good villain death can be quite cathartic. But your main character can, should be, different. After all, that character is the one the audience is supposed to identify with.

It’s kind of annoying to read about a jerk who just wanders around getting himself and other people into trouble.

Now, a sympathetic character who turns into a jerk? Again, if done well, with careful attention to the character arc, that can be a successful story that keeps the reader hooked. You can spin it as a tragedy, or as a slip in the road before the character becomes kinder/stronger/et cetera. Most of all, it has to be plausible.

The thing is, you have to be paying attention to your characters. If that development for the worse is on purpose, then you have to show the gradual — or sudden — progression of that descent. There has to be a reason behind it. If your heart-of-gold protagonist suddenly tortures a baddie into giving crucial information, I don’t care if it’s your character or not. You either have a solid reason for why, or you get jettisoned by the reader’s disbelief. Acting out of character (or OOC, as the fandom circles term it) is the number one way to lose your audience.