Why We Must Deconstruct Our Own Work

In Part 1 and Part 2 we took a look at what happened in Oz and why it’s just so dratted sad.  Essentailly, Oz suffers from a fourth wall blindness.  Everything takes place solely in the story, and it is not at all self aware of it’s own attitude.  The writers are fully immersed in Oscar’s story.  And you know, that’s understandable.  That’s why in these articles, I usually bash the story and not the writers.  It’s their job to be in that story.

But it’s also, their job to be above their story, too.  To be aware of the things their story is saying, beyond just the scripted words and actions.  Writers need to be self-aware of their work.  This is why we studied books and stories like “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” in school – so we could see examples of authors who knew exactly what the hell they were saying in the spaces between the lines.

 

Maybe a little more thought to it than this, but you get the idea.

Oz, and movies/books like it is why we need to deconstruct our own work.  I like to think that if the creators had realized what kind of movie they were actually making, they would have taken it in a different direction.  They would have said “Shit son, that’s not what we want to say.” and maybe actually turned the wicked witch angle on it’s head and put her on Glinda’s side.  Or Oscar would have actually realized what he’d done and sincerely apologized (recall, he never said “I’m sorry”, only acknowledged that it wasn’t Theodora’s fault) before he got the kiss from Glinda.

Just like Riddick, there were so many other options, just as awesome and exciting, and still with the fun(??) plot twists of “is he dead!?  Did he really leave!?” which could have saved the narrative of this movie.  But it’s like no one saw the problem… and that’s a problem.

I understand.  It’s scary to look at your work with the same eye that you would use in your English classes and really dig into what your subconscious has thrown in there.  You might find something you don’t like – such as an internalized romanticizing of rape, or that everyone who dies just happens to be female or male, or that all your villains are black, or fat, or disfigured, or asian, or that you’ve inadvertanly implied through the entire arc of your plot that all women besides your main, strong female character, are idiots, or crazy, or illogical.

It happens.  I found every single one of those in The Athele Series at some point.  Some of it is what you mean to say but not how you meant to say it. (Morgan intentionally disdains other women… but I didn’t mean to imply that the others who show up in the story aren’t of worth!).  Some of it is pure lazy writing or tunnel vision on my own words (Um, no, I most certainly did not mean to not have that woman not fight her rapist. That line about inevitability was not meant to be read that way!!).  Some of it is just assumption (no.  the man doesn’t always have to die to throw things into chaos, duh.) and some of it is just how you read the books before the one you wrote (you know, the bad guys in real life are often shockingly plain.)

The point is that you won’t know until you look.  Finding these things in your writing does not make you a bad person, nor does accidentally writing them, over and over.  That’s not what makes a bad writer.  Writing without mind, assuming that your words will come across exactly as you meant them to every single person from so many walks of life… that makes a bad writer.

Find a friend who can read from a standpoint entirely different from yours, who is practiced at reading mindfully.  I have two major ones (not including Michael), and they have pointed all of the above scenarios out to me, and discussed at length whether it’s a function of the story, or an unfortunate mistake in implication.  Write mini dissertations as to the deeper meaning of your work, your main character’s mind-set, your villain’s features and motivation.  Not only will it show you what your story is saying in the subtext, it will make for a stronger story.  Condense scenes and plots into one or two sentences.  Several times, focusing on different elements.

Have you done this?  Have you ever found distressing things hidden in the subtext of your writing?  What was the worst one?

Oz the Great and Powerful

UUUuuuuUUUUuugh.

You all know something?  I would really like to get back to the happy rainbows of “this is how you can write better!” stuff.  And I still do that occasionally, and I will do it more once I settle into a better routine with my new job (working 50 hours a week is way more tolerable when you’re getting paid reasonably for it).  But what brings me to the blog (again) today is another “this is how you DON’T write” thing.

So I watched Oz the great and powerful the other day.  Beautiful visual effects, and it was kind of fun.  Dialogue a little clunky and on the surface it just seemed like the story itself was in need of less clumsy trying to shove the mythos of the Wizard of Oz into something which fit the vision of the writers.  And on the surface, all the women were powerful.  I mean, Theodora, Glinda and Evanora, had super powers basically, and were fighting each other for control of a kingdom.  Not too bad of a premise, I guess.

The point is that you could tell they were trying.  Really, someone was trying to make a woman power movie, I think.  They just completely failed to dig deep enough into their own work to realize that instead of lifting the women in their work up, they were chipping away at their foundations and reducing them to being all about the male protagonist.

It starts out promising enough – Glinda poisons father to make a grab for the throne, Evanora her out, take control for herself with Theodora as her right hand.  Cool.  Daughter wanted power, Advisor wanted good for the people, sister wanted good for the sister.  That’s fine.  Even after the big “surprising” reveal that Glinda is actually the good one, we *could* have been ok.  Glenda wants good for her people, Evanora wants throne, Theodora wants good for the people and is mislead by sister.  We’re still ok – they all want things which are higher causes, or for their own personal gain.

Except the protagonist, Oscar, is then thrown in.  Now, Theodora wants Oscar.  Evanora wants Oscar to kill Glinda.  Glinda wants Oscar to save the world and realize himself.  Suddenly, these three women who had their own thoughts and causes want…Oscar.

Well then.

Let’s address the prophecy right now.  “He’ll come and save us all!  That’s why they all suddenly focus on him.  Of course they do!”  Fuck that noise.  I work with prophecy in my own books.  Prophecy used right is seen all over the fantasy world.  Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Just like magic, Prophecy can’t be used as the engine in the story.  It can be a tool, or fuel, or a cog in the machine, but it can’t be everything or it comes off as sad and dues ex machinaish.

One could try to argue that Oscar was the tool, and the women were merely using him.  If the movie had been from the perspective of the women, that would have been more believable, but Oscar was firmly the protagonist, first of all.  Second, Glinda is very purposefully trying to get him to understand his potential, not realize her vision of saving Oz.

It keeps going.  I had to split this post into three parts, so Part 2 will be out… soonish.  For now, what are your thoughts?  Did you have this problem with Oz?

Reviews and How to Handle Them…

So, Pandora’s Ring got a 2 star review.

My first reaction was “WAAAAAAAAAAH. WHHHHHHHHHHHHHHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?” and lots of other mewling, moaning and otherwise carrying on.  It wasn’t particularly pretty and I’m not exactly proud of it.

Ok, to be totally honest with you all here, I didn’t really even read the review.  I saw the star rating and went “Nope.  Not reading.  Not now.”

So then I asked a friend to read it for me and tell me how bad it really was.

And now I wish I’d read that review a lot earlier.

You see, the reviewer (a friend of mine from college) had some really good points to make, and while the book only got two stars, it was backed up with a long, in depth review of what worked, and what I had been missing.  It was funny, reading it, because most of the stuff she said was things I’d heard before, from a variety of people, and they were all true.  There was lots of truthy truth, and really making it clear what the weaknesses in my writing were.

A blow to my ego?  Sure.  Yeah.

Invaluable critiscism?  Oh hell yes.

While I can’t go in and take her points into account on Sword’s Blessings (the file is already finished and populated into it’s digital book format.) I can go ahead and start fixing it right now in the third book, and I can take it in account while continuing work on The Athele Series.  I’ve also asked her to serve as a critical reader so that I can utilize her eye for plot and character.

Now, it’s not that I’m not disappointed with myself that dang it, that’s a two star review, and that’s really not a shiny thing.  However, I have to remind myself: this is the pregame.  Pandora’s Ring is not the end.  So long as I keep writing, and keep listening to reviewers and not letting my ego make me ignore these things, it’s not over.  Writing is like running.  It’s not about the one run, on that one night, or even that one race on that one day.  It’s about the long run, and it’s not over until I stop writing and give up.

So how do you deal with critiscism?

Lazy Character Development

A week or so ago, Michael and I saw Riddick.

I wasn’t expecting a lot – it’s a Riddick film after all.  He kicks some ass, survives the odds, maybe trades witty banter if we’re lucky.  I mean, I love Riddick.  First of all, Vin Diesel is hot.  Second, Riddick’s eyes are freaking awesome.  Third, I’m a sucker for big ol survival stories.

I wasn’t expecting like, earth shaking revelations or awe inspiring speeches.  I wasn’t expecting fantastic characters and depth from every secondary person I met.

However, I also wasn’t expecting everyone we met besides Riddick to be a straight up trope.  There was the ‘praying boy wonder’ the ‘evil but stupid’ the ‘raped female prisoner’ and of course, my favorite, ‘the strong female character’ .

Let’s be clear.  I don’t have a problem with tropes, in many cases.  Tropes and cliches are tropes and cliches for a reason.  The problem is when an author leans on the trope to do their character development for them.  No, being in a movie does not, in any way, excuse the writers for the fact that I could predict evil guy’s next move – not because I understood who he was and what his motivations were, but because the trope dictated that it would be his next move.  Can’t get the girl the first time?  Insult her!  Can’t get her a second?  Attempt to rape her!  Of course!  Praying boy shall pray, because that’s what we expect!  Surprise, though, this time it’ll work!  Strong female character shall declare she doesn’t like men, then she shall fight off rapist and then proceed to proposition the main character (oh believe me, more on that little faux pas later.)

The problem with Riddick wasn’t actually that these people did these things, but that there wasn’t a because.  (Besides, “because that’s just what you do!”) They just played their roles, and we watched.  We can’t answer why Dahl said she didn’t like men.  We can’t answer why Santana acts so big and tough when he’s clearly not.  We can’t say why the praying boy puts up with the gang of bounty hunters.  We can make it up – oh yes!  I can make up a million reasons for these things.  But here’s the problem, I’m not the one who was supposed to do that.  

Think of your favorite books.  Are you forced to come up with the character’s motivations for things they do?  Are you jumping through hoops to understand the character, or is the author offering you the viewing platform with a side of champagne?  Conversely, when you write, are you giving the reader a “because…” or are you making them figure it out for themselves?  Go back, find some character’s action and say to yourself “X did this because…” then go find the passage which explains it.

This is important.  Leaning on your tropes gives you shallow characters, which in turn gives you a shallow story.  I’ll admit, sometimes I’m just looking for explosions and man versus the world… but readers don’t only want the what.  They want the why.  Don’t make us fill it in for ourselves!

Tidbit Thursday, 5/16/13

Hello, everyone!  I’m actually writing this only a few minutes from walking out the door to head to Chicago for ACEN.  It promises to be a rather spectacular weekend, so you can be sure that both me and Kate will have plenty of stories to tell when we get back!

The prompt  for this week is #41: “Blood.”

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

“The child should be thrown from the ramparts.  You saw what her mother did!”

“It’s true that her mother’s crime was heinous.  Still, at most, the child should only be sent back to the commons.”

The man in the center stood and the room fell silent. The silence remained until he departed, at which point the man who had been to his left murmured.

“The emperor has spoken.  The child is of blood.  None other exists before or after.”

Pandora’s Ring

Hi guys!  It’s me!  Work has gotten a little insane lately, but I got some great news!  Pandora’s ring, while originally coming out May 6th, is actually early!  Hurray!  Want to help a fledgling author?  More than buying the book, reviews are the best of the best way.  Love it or hate it (I mean, I hope you love it, but if you don’t, I want to know!) saying something, even a quick something, is always gold!

Pandora's Ring by Kaitlin R. Branch

Harvesting the soul of a first-born should be an easy mission for Eli Tawson, Scavenger of the Damned. But when he meets Samantha Parker, he finds there is more to his mission than meets the eye. Samantha can see through his illusions and, after some instruction, creates the most powerful binding spell he’s ever experienced. Eli is intrigued and makes it his mission to find out why she was not collected by the demon who should own her soul.

Samantha wants nothing more than a normal life and to be left alone. She is both leery of and attracted to the strange Eli. The young woman finds herself thrust into a world she never knew existed of magic, angels and demons and nothing is what it seems. Pursued by another powerful demon and discovering her own hidden abilities, Samantha must discover the truth of her mother’s ‘death’. Her mother’s ring proves to be the key to her past and her future, leaving her straddling two worlds.

Eager to protect his newfound love, Eli soon finds Samantha might be the one who has to protect him.

You can find it here!

Awesome Stuff!

If you’re looking for a great way to break into some romance genre action, I have an awesome thing for you!  Renee is a really great publisher to work for, keeping her authors informed and appreciated, and Lyrical has dynamite editors!

Pitch to the Publisher: Monday, March 25 at 7:30 pm EST

Renee Rocco, president and CEO of Lyrical Press, is now reserving five spots for live ten minute pitch sessions via video chat.

  • Date: Monday, March 25, 2013
  • Time: 7:30 EST
  • Available pitch sessions: 5
  • Deadline to reserve a pitch session: Wednesday, March 20th
  • Contactpublisher@lyricalpress.com
  • Required equipment: Video chat capabilities on your computer, table, or mobile phone
  • Genres: Romance and erotic romance only

Hotel Transylvania, Plot, and Storytelling

Michael and I watched Hotel Transylvania last night.  I’d been seeing it off and on since it came out on DVD in various tester screens in the stores, and what I saw looked interesting and funny.

I was right.  It’s a lighthearted, cute and at times hilarious movie, and for a while I wondered why it hadn’t reached greater heights, like Shrek and Finding Nemo.

Once I started to think critically about it, it was easy to pinpoint the troubles, and they are very, very relevant to storytelling and pacing.  Here are the three big reasons that I think Hotel Transylvania, despite being a really great film to watch to detox off of the intensity of Game of Thrones, didn’t do as well as it could have.

#3 Wonky Pacing.

The story is adorable and we get the jist of the set up very quick.  Dracula has a little girl and he adores her.  Except, the set up is long.  Like, the opening of the movie is probably 5 to 10 minutes of Dracula adorably doting on his little girl, singing her songs, playing with her, teaching her to fly… but like I said, the jist is super simple.  They could have cut that set up in half, easy.

Slow wind ups do not an engrossing movie make.  We need to be dumped in to stories, akin to a child jumping on a slide.  Do you think it’s a good slide if you push off and then stop start your way down to the bottom?  Um, no, you want a fast, smooth ride which gets your heart pounding immediately.  (I miss being short enough that playground slides are still the best thing ever.)

This applies to your stories as well.  Make sure the intro gives only the information needed, and nothing more, and then, as they say, get to the monkey.

#2 Who and what is this story about?  

Finding Nemo did a great job of balancing between its characters.  We’d have Dad and Dori, then Nemo and the Fishtank.  It was easy to focus on the main characters.  Hotel Transylvania did a little wandering about it’s main characters.  See, for most of the movie I thought it was all about Dracula.  But by the end of the movie, it was more about his daughter and the love interest, and how they ‘zing’ed.  It had a little bit of a wandering eye.  Some scenes would just be about Dracula’s difficulty in letting his daughter grow up, some about the daughter experiencing love, and some wouldn’t have much to do with either of those themes.

I know it’s fun to put extra goodies in your work, and yeah, I’m totally guilty of it too.  But the fact is, to get a streamlined and fabulous book, you need to choose a character or two and stick with them.  Game of Thrones happens to choose about 20 characters, but you are not G.R.R. Martin and neither am I.  Valeria has 1 main perspective.  Pandora’s Ring has 2.  Sleight of Spirit has 4 (with about 5x the word count, though).  Keep an eye on it.

#1 Filler, Filler, Filler

Ok, I get it.  It was really funny for Dracula and Frankenstein, and daddy Werewolf to just jaw off for ten minutes.  I enjoyed it, I really did.  But at the same time, the story HALTED so that these characters could get off a ton of inside jokes.  The movie was only 90 minutes, so I understand why they did a bit of padding, but I think that they could have done a lot more for the plot by just kissing the jokes, introducing us to the one’s we’d need to know, and then getting on with it.

In our stories, I know those characters like to bounce off each other and have a ton of fun.  If I let my characters go, they get silly, they get melencholy, and I get great stuff out of that, BUT your story probably isn’t there just to be a time passer.  That’s how the book gets put down.  You have to hit fast, hit hard, and then keep hitting.  I know, I know, the books you read in literature class had a lot more time to beat around bushes and dinner parties, but the average reader isn’t looking for that these days.  So make sure you look at every scene, at every sentence, and ask yourself is this moving the plot forward?  

What movie did you guys love, but felt like it just didn’t live up to it’s own potential?

Quick Bites: Little

Be careful.  Little is one of those words that you write it and you’re trying to imply something, or take away from the shock of something, or you aren’t even thinking, and then you look back and you’re like “Wait, what?  That makes no sense at all.”

Let’s go through the reasons I use the word ‘little’ and then why it’s a bad plan.

1. I want to imply that the action is happening, but it’s not in a huge way.  

Example: He jumped up and down a little.

Why it’s bad:  The word ‘jump’ means, by it’s very nature, that you take your feet off the ground.  There is nothing little about it.  It just can’t be a little action.  If I am jumping a ‘little’ what am I actually doing then?  It’s way better to use a word which more accurately described what ‘he’ was doing.

Fix it! He bounced on his toes.  

2. To soften an action which I feel might be too dramatic for the text.

Example:  He screamed a little, backing away.

Why it’s bad:  You can’t have it both ways.  I know that it’s kind of scary to have complete control, and sometimes you want to soften the blow to your characters, give em a break, or maybe you’re worried about being labelled as melodramatic.  But at the same time… you’re a writer.  Your job is to create drama.  Softening that drama just means you’re slacking on the job.  

Fix it! He screamed, backing away.

3. To take the place of ‘a small bit’ or show that something is a small amount.

Example:  He adjusted the pillow a little to lay flat.

Why it’s bad: This is the easiest.  Frankly, ‘little’ is filler here.  No really, take it out.  “He adjusted the pillow to lay flat”.  Exact same sentence; because you’ve already implied the small amount of effort taken by using the word ‘adjusted’.  

Fix it!  He adjusted the pillow to lay flat.  

Hope this helps!  If you have a word you’d like me to analyze for quick bites, feel free to leave it in the comments!

Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

Another Guest post today!  The blog is hopping this week!  I’ll have another few posts up by Saturday or Sunday.  Today it’s K.L. Schwengel, author of ‘First of Her Kind’ which just hit the waves a week or so ago.  We’ve been talking on Twitter for awhile, so when she mentioned she wanted to do a blog hop, I volunteered right quick.  Love this post, it’s similar to what I went through learning to write hard scenes, so pay attention, take notes, and check out her books!

That’s a Jillian Michaels line, I’ll admit it. She says it during one of her yoga exercise workouts. You don’t want to know what I say in response. But you probably do want to know what that has to do with writing.

I’m getting to that.

Sometimes, over the course of writing a scene, we like to gloss over the unpleasantries. At least, I find myself doing that. We wimp out with superficial descriptions because sometimes it’s uncomfortable to really get into our character’s skin and be honest about what they’re experiencing – physically and mentally.

In my current book, First of Her Kind, one of the protagonists finds himself in the hands of a skilled torturer. My first, second, and possible third drafts of those scenes were okay, but lacked real punch. My beta reader finally smacked me up alongside the head. “It’s real for your characters,” he said. “Make it real for your readers.” And that meant getting as uncomfortable as my character was. It meant taking his daily dose of what was supposed to pass for food from a lackluster few words about some watery substance that tasted bad, to:

Food came in the form of lukewarm gruel that smelled of horse urine and vomit. When Bolin refused it, Haracht forced it down his throat – three times – until it stayed there.

Gross, I know, and I make a face every time I read it. I hope my readers make a face, too, because I want them to be uncomfortable. I want them to really feel what’s going on. Pushing the limits, engaging the senses, all helps to build tension and develop sympathy for the characters.

So, what’s my trick? Well, first I find some music that sets the mood. Then I get a fire going, pour myself a glass of wine, and get comfy on the couch. With my laptop on my lap, I close my eyes and put myself in my characters skin. I jot down anything that comes to mind. What he might see, smell, feel. Whether I’m going to use it or not. It’s a bit like brainstorming, I guess. I don’t pull any punches. All the better if it’s vulgar, disgusting, painful, emotional – not everything will make it into the final piece, but it all provides the building blocks for a deeper experience for the reader.

It’s hard work, and just like Jillian Michaels workout, it’s not always fun, but in the long run, it’s worth it.

  First of Her Kind

BLURB:

Everyone, it seems, wants to dictate what Ciara does with her life: Serve the Goddess, destroy the Goddess, do as you promised your aunt. All Ciara wants is to keep the two magics she possesses from ripping her apart.

And that won’t be easy.

Not only are they in complete opposition to each other, blood ties pull her in divergent directions as well. And then there’s Bolin, the man sworn to protect her. There’s no denying the growing attraction between them, but is it Ciara he wants? Or her power?

None of which will matter if Ciara can’t overcome her fear and learn to use her gifts.No one knows the depths
of the ancient power she possesses, or what will happen if it manages to escape her control.

Will she lose herself entirely? Or be forever trapped between darkness & light?

 

sale links:

Print:

Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/first-of-her-kind-k-l-schwengel/1114274504?ean=9781482051520&r=1%2c+1&cm_mmc=AFFILIATES-_-Linkshare-_-GwEz7vxblVU-_-10%3a1&

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e-books:

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/277735

Amazon:   http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00B7S6QAWl

Personal links:Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/kl.schwengel.5

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/KLSchwengel

Blog:  http://myrandommuse.wordpress.com

Goodreads:  http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6871795.K_L_Schwengel