Writers, Watch This: Lindsay Ellis

Last week, thanks to YouTube’s algorithms noticing my husband and I watch a lot of critique on movies, television, and literature, we discovered Lindsay Ellis’ channel. We’re not even remotely through watching all of it, because there’s a fair bit and we’re also watching a lot of anime this season, but so far we’ve knocked out videos on the death of the Hollywood Musical, critiques on the adaptations of Rent and The Phantom of the Opera, and her video-letter of apology to Stephenie Meyer about the way she was treated surrounding Twilight and its movie adaptations. All fantastic stuff.

But I probably wouldn’t have brought her up here on the blog if the last video we watched hadn’t hit so close to home — Bright: The Apotheosis of Lazy Worldbuilding.

It’s an excellent critique of the many problems with the movie, which she quickly summarizes so you don’t have to have watched it first. (And from the sound of it, I’m glad I didn’t, and don’t intend to now.)

I recommend you watch her video, of course, but if you don’t have the 45 minutes to spare right now before you finish reading this post, the TL;DR of it is that Bright slaps the fantasy elements it wants onto an obvious copy of our world without doing enough (or much of anything, really) to integrate those elements in any natural or believable way.

Why did this hit me so hard when her other videos mostly made me nod along with her points and laugh at her wit? Because she could have been talking about my current WIP.

#spookyromancenovel, which you’ve all been hearing tidbits about for almost a year now, is a combo of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, very much in the vein of the outstanding Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. (Which faithful readers will be aware I’ve completed over the last two years.) My alternate contemporary setting isn’t the same, and wears a lot of different influences on its sleeves, but that’s definitely a big one.

Something the Kate Daniels series does to ground its alternate history solidly is have a recent divergence point from “real” history. Which is something that Ellis points out Bright doesn’t do–it constantly references events that happened two thousand years ago, but expects us to believe that despite all these other races cohabiting the world with humans, nothing else major is different–we still get the Alamo, and Shrek, and possibly the #BlackLivesMatter movement…which doesn’t really make sense. (She points out how rare successful alternate-history media is, with Watchmen and, oddly enough, Who Framed Roger Rabbit being the prime examples.)

Seeing this all dissected so neatly made me realize my own worldbuilding is lazy, because I never explain at all when or how my society diverged from our history.

It’s a flaw I’ve been accused of before. I never explain the source of the plague or anything about it in the What We Need trilogy, and my beta readers had me defending that. Ultimately, and I know I’m biased because it’s my own work, but ultimately, it’s justified because a) the story of the plague itself wasn’t the story I wanted to tell, hence starting six months later; and b) it’s okay that the reader isn’t given the explanation because none of the characters can provide it. They’re all just as much in the dark about the origins and specific pathology of the plague.

#spookyromancenovel can’t use that justification. I have werewolves peacefully coexisting in the same city as humans, without any history to explain why. I have a vampire coalition campaigning for political power so that vampires can be recognized as citizens under human government, affording them rights and protections they don’t have because, legally speaking, they’re dead, not undead. But when did that start? How did humans react to the knowledge that werewolves and vampires are real? Not to mention my twist on gargoyles, also real, flocking around the city like overgrown and particularly nasty pigeons. And magic being an actual thing–when did witches come out of the closet, so to speak? How did that go?

My characters, they would know these things. If you asked, they should be able to tell you at least a vague outline of why the vampire political movement started, or when gargoyles started showing up perched on tall buildings, or when werewolves started immigrating to the city and creating their own neighborhoods.

But they can’t, because I don’t know. I wrote a cool world by slapping some fantasy elements onto the world I know, and called it a day.

…Of course, that’s not the end of it, because I haven’t finished. The second draft is finishing up its beta round now. I can still fix all of this, though it’s obviously going to take a lot of work. Creating alternate history is hard, and creating good, successful alternate history is even harder.

So I sat through 45 minutes of critique that was never intended to be directed at me, feeling uncomfortable and vaguely ashamed by how well it did apply to me, and came out of it determined to do better. Thank you, Lindsay Ellis.

Six More Prompts to Develop Your Characters: Employment

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Most characters in most settings have to make a living somehow, which generally means they’ve got a job. How important that job is or isn’t to the story is going to depend on the story, but if we’re spending a lot of point-of-view time with that character, we’re likely to see them on the job; even if we don’t, what their work is should have some kind of tangible impact on who they are. I can’t count the number of romances I’ve read where one or both of the leads has a profession but is never seen at work and never mentions it; or they work in such a generic office setting doing such generic tasks (if anything) that I have no idea what the company they work for actually does. And while I’m most familiar with the romance genre, that’s not the only culprit–how many movies have I seen over the years where I couldn’t tell you, after the movie ends, what any of the characters did for a living, despite being set in modern day, with adult characters?

(I can’t find the source again, but years ago I saw a quote about how, for a while, everyone in the movies was an ad executive, because it meant they made good money but had little responsibility. The implication being, they could do whatever or be wherever the plot needed them to do or be, and also, it was blanket permission to be smarmy, like you’d expect a Hollywood ad executive character to be. I really, really wish I remember the quote better so I could find it again and credit it properly.)

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve just seen a fantastic example of characters with jobs that matter: Steve and Robin slinging ice cream at the mall in Stranger Things 3. Steve needs the job because he’s not going to college. Robin’s reasons aren’t as clearly articulated, but it’s not unusual for kids to have summer jobs, so we can roll with that. Where they work places them both in a position to be involved with the plot as the season unfolds. Same for Nancy and Jonathan interning at the newspaper.

So, with all that in mind, here are some questions to consider when giving your characters a job, or not.

1. If they don’t work, is it by choice, or are they incapable for some reason such as disability, legal status, etc.? How do they support themselves otherwise?

2. Is this job their dream job, a step along the way to it, or completely unrelated? Do they even have a dream job?

3. What’s involved in the day-to-day work? Is it physically demanding? Mentally taxing? How much time does it take out of their day, and how do they feel when they’re done? Does this effect serve the larger story, or work against it?

4. How long have they been at this job? How did they get it? What sorts of privileges come with their position, if any?

5. Are any of the scenes of your story going to take place at that character’s job? If so, how many coworkers are likely to be there, and how many do you intend to utilize? Are they friends with your character, rivals, indifferent? How does their presence mesh with your story’s needs?

6. If nothing story-related is going to happen on the job, how much of the stress (or happiness, or satisfaction) from working does your character bring home at the end of the working day? How does it affect their mood? Does it affect their relationships, like if they work late constantly, are they missing dates or time with friends?

As usual, some or all of these questions, this advice, might not apply to your story. If you’re not working with a real-world setting, you’ve got world-building to do that’s going to include jobs, some of which might not exist yet. Or if you’re working in a historical setting, you’ve got research to do about what sorts of things people did in that place and era, again, jobs that might not exist anymore. In either case, some of my advice will still be relevant, but not everything. Use this as a jumping-off point to think about to make sure your story isn’t two incredibly bland office drones falling in love outside of work while I, your reader, am shouting internally, but what do they actually do all day?

Writers, Watch This: Just Write

I’ve been meaning to recommend the channel Just Write for a while now, but this video from last week catapulted the idea back into my mind. One third of my posts to this blog are art criticism, because Fridays are book review days.

I’m not sure I’ve ever used the phrase “objectively bad” in one of my reviews, but it’s possible. (Honestly, I’m not going to search all of them for it.) I have strong opinions on what’s bad in a book, and what’s good, but watching this made me consider what my biases are.

I managed to come up with a few that I don’t think most people would argue with:

  1. Pedophilia = bad, when portrayed with anything other than condemnation.
  2. Same goes for rape.

After that, though, my grounds for what constitutes good/bad become hazier. Sure, I decry racism when I find it, but I also recognize that being white, with my raising and background, I’m simply not going to see things the way a person of color would–I can point to obvious racism and racial bias in a lot of the work I read, but I know a lot of it escapes me as well.

By the same token, I take a book to task for any obvious misogyny or anti-feminist rhetoric, but I’m not going necessarily going to spot the same things a woman of color would, because I’m in the process of moving away from White Feminism™ to a more intersectional viewpoint.

Getting more specific, I abhor anything that romanticizes abusive behavior (toward anyone, but especially women,) yet what do I find in my own beloved romance genre? “Heroes” who are stalkers, manipulators, abusers, and somehow readers still love them. Do I think they’re “objectively bad?” Absolutely.

But that’s still just a bias.

There’s more, of course–anyone who’s been reading my reviews for long enough could probably list a half dozen on top of these–but to circle back to my original point, Just Write has a lot of thought-provoking videos like this one to get you thinking about writing from different angles and thinking critically not only about the craft, but about yourself and how you approach it.

Writing Homework #14 – Freewriting

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Don’t think–just write. Ray Bradbury

My writing hasn’t been going as well as I’d like lately, and part of it is not knowing how to begin. I need to rework the beginning of my novel draft, which includes adding a new first chapter (or two) before the original draft picks up the story…and I’m just not liking how it’s going.

I’ve got myself a block, and when that happens, I like trying new techniques to get past it. Hence, freewriting.

If this isn’t something you already do, you may want to try it. Not just to unblock yourself, like I am–many writers like to start a session with a few minutes of freewriting, to limber up their fingers and unknot their brains.

How do you do it? Set a timer, open a document, and just write. Sounds simple, yeah?

It’s not. “Just write” means don’t edit. Don’t fix typos. Don’t stop to think about what you’re writing or where it’s headed or if it’s at all related to the story you’re trying to tell in your “real” work–just write.

Will anything you get down in those five or ten or twenty minutes be usable? Bits and pieces, at best, sometimes. But it isn’t the content of your freewriting that’s meant to be useful–it’s the act of it. The cathartic release of your emotions, if you use the exercise like a journal to clear out your head. The warming-up of your hands and brain to the task of working on your project, if you use the exercise as an opening to your regular writing session. The disabling of your internal editor, who is forbidden to care how badly you mangle the words and sentences that tumble from your fingertips.

If any of that sounds like something you need for yourself, here’s your assignment: try five minutes of freewriting, now, or whenever you sit down to write next. Turn on the timer and turn off your self-criticism.

If you feel better afterward, use that, and work on your real writing. If you don’t yet, try another five or ten minutes to see if that gets some of the kinks out. And if it doesn’t? If you’re just frustrated at the end? Maybe freewriting isn’t for you, but now you know.

 

Writing Homework #13: Song Lyric Inspiration

Song and song-lyric writing prompts are nothing new, but I’m going for a slightly different tactic here.

My husband and I are both devoted Pumpkinheads, being teenagers from the ’90s, and early on in our friendship we bonded over our similar tastes in music quite strongly.

On our car trip for Christmas vacation, we popped in some Pumpkins for nostalgia’s sake–I hadn’t actually listened to Machina – The Machines of God in years.

I was caught by a single line from “Try, Try, Try” —

the automatic gauze of your memories

In five words, it says so much. How memory is imperfect and fades over time, and how that’s something beyond control.

Now, if I wanted to use this directly in my own writing, obviously that’s plagiarism. And plagiarism is bad, okay?

But there’s nothing stopping me, or any writer, from noting down lines we love, that speak to us, and adapting that imagery or emotion for ourselves, reinterpreting it.

I’m not going to go so far as to recommend you keep yet another dedicated journal just for song lyrics, like the vocabulary journal, but if you already do have a little notebook handy for your writing thoughts, add those song lyrics in, with whatever images or ideas they spark in you, however they make you feel. Take some time to listen to old favorites, especially music you might have neglected for a while, see what memories the songs conjure up, and write about that too.

When you need inspiration later for your projects, or when you need to capture a specific tone for a scene, you’ll have your own words ready to guide you.

Expand Your Horizons: A 2018 Reading Challenge

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I’ve been thinking lately about how many types of books I’d like to read more of, yet never seem to make time for. I thought that next year, I should read one book from outside my comfort zone a month.

But then I realized this would make a great reading challenge to share. It’s lightweight, easy to personalize, and even stackable, if you want to take on more than one category of books you’ve been meaning to read.

So I invite you to join me on a reading challenge adventure in 2018!

Some category suggestions to get you started:

  • Non-fiction
  • Banned books
  • PoC Authors/Protagonists
  • LGBTQIA+ Authors/Protagonists
  • #ownvoices in general
  • Classics
  • Poetry

I’m definitely leaning towards non-fiction, classics, and/or banned books myself. But you can customize the categories to make them broader or narrower depending on what interests you, and of course there’s all sorts of things I didn’t list because I already read them. You could use this as a platform to try any sort of genre fiction you haven’t read, or you could decide to read Man Booker Prize or any other award winners, or back-catalog books from Oprah’s Book Club, if that’s what you want.

Simply choose (or create!) one or more categories, commit to reading one a month in 2018, and let me know you’re participating on social media with the tag #horizonsreadingchallenge.

Let me know what you think, and feel free to suggest more categories in the comments!

 

Looking at Writing from a Different Perspective, Part II

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Last year I recommended two Youtube channels that examine story through the lens of a different genre–video games and movies.

Today I have another recommendation: Lessons from the Screenplay.

This channel takes a writerly bent on movie analysis by examining the screenplay directly. I’ve been impressed by and learned something from each video I’ve watched–I’m not caught up with the backlog yet, and I’m skipping some videos to avoid spoilers for movies I’m interested in seeing but haven’t.

Anything, though, that gets me thinking about the guts and bones of story construction is something I want to pass around for everyone to share.