Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Changing It Up

I hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend. I did - I went away for the weekend to spend time with my family and watched movies and read. I was sleeping somewhere different for 3 nights, and I noticed something interesting happen. Every morning when I woke up I reached for my notebook because the last dream of the night was intriguing. I now have several new story ideas, thanks to my dreams. When I told my aunt about this, she suggested that it might have happened because I was in a different place.

Biologically it makes sense to me. The room I slept in was slightly cooler than my room normally, and I sleep better when I'm cold. My sleep would have been deeper and my dreams more colorful. But I wonder about the mere act of changing it up and how it affects writing. Maybe there was something in being separated from my everyday life that inspired creativity. I know I write my best poetry when I'm away from home. So today I want to talk about getting away from it all and using escape to beat writer's block.

Travel is great, probably my favorite way to inspire new ideas for stories. However, it's not terribly practical to leave on a road trip every time the idea well runs dry. But while it helps to physically leave, I think it's more the traveler's mindset that boosts creativity. It's about getting out of your comfort zone and doing something different, and thus seeing the world a different way. I was out driving with a friend (not a road trip) and the sky was lit up by the sunset. I wasn't away from home, per se, but the sunset looked so unusual it drew out my imagination. The clouds started to look like a golden reflection of the mountains, which got me thinking What Ifs. What if the sky always reflected the mountains? What would it have to be made of? What if there was someone up there thinking the mountains were the reflection? What if there was another land up there, reversed, so that people walked on the underside of the clouds?

Okay, that was a bit of a rant. But the point is, I think writers (especially fantasy writers) should allow the alien in. I once heard a published writer say that she loved her work because she could go skydiving and call it research. While I am NEVER going skydiving, I understand her point. Everything is fuel for a writer's mind, even leaving for the weekend and sleeping in a different place. The combination of a cooler room and different experiences during the day made my dreams unusually inspiring. To finish off, I'd like to list a few things you can do to change it up without having to leave home:

Sleep on the couch.
Look through the grass at ant height.
Join a club/take lessons for something unusual, like fencing or candy making.
If you're an adult, visit a toy store. For you.
Explore someplace remote.
Pretend to be someone else for a little while.
Write a short story outside your usual genre.

Pretty general list, but you know what takes you out of your routine. See you next week!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Killing Off Characters

Summer continues, and I'm still reading a lot. I actually found a pretty good children's series called The Guardians by William Joyce. It's not about owls; that's a different series. The first book is called Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King and is about the magical beings that protect children. Santa Claus, apparently, got his start as a Russian bandit and then became a wizard's apprentice. There's a movie coming out this winter called Rise of the Guardians based on these books. It's made by the people who made How to Train Your Dragon and the trailer looks awesome.

So, from that whimsical comment, I want to change directions and talk about killing off characters in stories. I think it's necessary sometimes, but it can be dangerous ground. I have seen so many books and movies were this isn't handled well or done for the right reasons. Personally, I think the death of a character should impact the story just as much if not more than it impacts the reader/viewer. It should not be done for the purposes of emotional manipulation.I know the movie Moulin Rouge is very popular, and I respect that people like it, but it does this. The death at the end has little to do with the development of the characters or the overt message of the movie - that love is the greatest thing in the world and all you need is love. Apparently a tuberculosis cure would have been better. One can argue that the death influences the plot, but that influence isn't strong enough to justify it. The story could have been done another way, just as strong.

That's not to say killing off characters is a bad idea. When you're writing a story where the stakes are high (think war or the end of the world) sacrifices are going to be made. People die in war. Killing characters, including main characters, is a way of showing the seriousness of the situation as well as the ugly reality of war. J.K. Rowling does an excellent job of this in the Harry Potter series, particularly in the last one. I think everyone who read it felt the weight of loss. On another note, the "moral" of the Harry Potter story seems to be about accepting death as part of life, so the death of characters  actually adds to the message as other characters react to it in different ways.

Likewise, when the main theme of a story is death it makes sense to have a character die. It almost goes without saying. If the story is about someone who is terminally ill and the conflict comes from that character's or their family's struggle accepting it and moving on, then the death is acceptable in the context of the story and is not simply there for emotional manipulation.

But on the whole, I think killing characters should be something a writer thinks deeply about. When you kill off a character, you take away the possibility of that character influencing the story later in a brilliant, creative way. Imagine how The Lord of the Rings would have ended differently if Tolkien had written that Bilbo kills Gollum in The Hobbit! If the story is better served by having that character die - if it influences another character to behave a certain way, or if it strengthens the theme - then by all means, do it. But if it's only to create an emotional response in the reader, that's not good enough. Your writing should be strong enough to do that on its own.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Review: The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy

I've done some writing this week, but right now the pacing is out of whack and I need to banish my inner editor before I'll be able to feel good about what I've written. There have been some fun results of my brainstorming (on how to get my pacing back to normal): I managed to come up with a whole, elaborate-yet-brilliantly-simple plan for Jeremy and Becca as well as a couple of friends for Jeremy. They, of course, are also thieves. There's Paul, the hacker, and Case, the forger. They also use their skills to help people and aren't crazy enough to use them under Becca's nose. They're not as charismatic as Jeremy, but they're pretty great. Paul has no self-control with a computer (think, "let's see how far I can go before I get in trouble") and Case loves football but won't play it because he's afraid he'll damage his hands. As for the plan, not revealing it to the public.

As the title of this post would imply, I have done a lot of reading lately and have found a couple pretty fun books. Since I've been on a superhero kick lately since The Avengers came out - I saw Chronicle  and rewatched X-Men: First Class since - several of these books have been superhero stories. The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy: The Hero Revealed by William Boniface is a light, fun summer read that I thoroughly enjoyed. The story takes place in Superopolis, where everyone is born with a superpower, wears a costume, and has a name like Plasma Girl or the Amazing Indestructo. Everyone, except Ordinary Boy. When O Boy and his friends uncover a plot (somewhat by accident) by the villainous Professor Brain-Drain, they get involved.

If you like the movie Sky High, you'd get a kick out of this book. It mocks superheroes in a loving way - most of the people in Superopolis are incredibly stupid and are pretty much useless if they can't use their powers. O Boy, of course, is more intelligent than most. One of the most fun things about the book is that each person in the city has a different name and superpower, and they're not all amazing. There's the Inkblot, who can repel ink, Puddle Boy, who makes puddles, and Melonhead, whose head resembles a watermelon and can spit seeds. See? Like Sky High.

The book is middle grade, and I'm not going to say it will change your life. But it is a fun, fast read for those who love superhero stories. It's clever in its treatment of comic book traditions, and is a pretty entertaining depiction of what a city full of superheroes would be like.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Summer Viewing List

Hey, I'm afraid I haven't been that exciting this past week: not much readable writing, or even deep thinking about the elements of good writing. I did go see The Avengers over the weekend, which was written and directed by Joss Whedon, who I talked about last week. Therefore, the characters were awesome. And the movie was awesome. I have already had a post about my "Summer Reading List", but as I have said before, I am the Story Fanatic, not just the Book Fanatic. There are some excellent stories in movies, so I thought that today I would give a list of some of my favorite films, a summer viewing list, if you will.

Anything by Pixar: they don't make a bad movie, and their characterization is excellent
How to Train Your Dragon: good writing, good music, exciting plot
Enchanted April: slow-paced movie, but inspiring and perfect for lazy summer days
Disney's Beauty and the Beast: one of the best movies ever. 'Nuff said.
A Knight's Tale: rock and roll and jousting. Fun characters (Chaucer), fun plot, just a great jaunt.
The Prestige: this is an excellent example of the genre of the fantastic and is mind-bendingly interesting
O Brother, Where Art Thou?: based on Homer's Odyssey but set in the 1930s with escaped criminals. Very well done
Iron Man: Robert Downey Jr. does an excellent job as the title role - snappy dialogue, action, excitement. Actually, I have a soft spot for all Marvel films.
The Princess Bride: do I have to explain this one? It's a classic!
Penelope: modern-day fairy tale with great characters. Uses a lot of traditional fairy tale tropes.
Sherlock Holmes: see note for Iron Man, but with a Watson adding to the awesome. No to be confused with BBC's TV show Sherlock, which is also excellent.
All 3 of the Lord of the Rings films: well-made, wonderful adaptation. Music and casting top-notch.
Tangled: one of Disney's best. Fun, clever story, and both the guy and girl are strong characters.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: not true to the book at all, but the sense of humor in the film alone is worth watching it.
While You Were Sleeping: one of my all-time favorite romantic comedies because of the crazy family.
Hairspray: because I had to have a musical on this list, and this one reminds me of the fun, carefree elements of summer.

Just so you know, this is a just a list of some of my constant favorites, the ones I don't say no to watching. There are more, and I'm about as picky with films as I am with books. I'm also a fan of Hitchcock films, I love a good action flick (yes, there is an emphasis on good), and I like way more musicals than I listed. I tend to go through phases with movies, just as I do with books, and summer tends to be more action/adventure.

On a final note, I just realized a lot of the movies on my list are based on  or inspired by books. At least 8 of them. Huh.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Support Your Supporting Characters

I realize this post is a day late, but I have a good excuse: I forgot what day it was yesterday. As for it possibly being a week late, since I didn't post last week, I say that I was out of town. Also, I had graduated that weekend (congratulations to me) and sadly, the blog posts were a little further down on my list. I apologize if anyone was offended by my online absence. I hope to make up for it today.

Last time I posted I talked about the characters that are introducing themselves to me. That is still happening. Berzen, for example, is getting into a lot of trouble and I like him quite a lot. He's the kind of person who, if you leave him alone for a few minutes, will manage to cheat someone/make someone look like a fool/kiss a girl in front of a protective male/etc. and get chased down the street. He'd love every minute of it too. I have to admit, I'm spending more time developing this supporting character than my main character. So today's post is on the importance of supporting characters.

I think one of the primary signs of a good story is how well its supporting characters are developed. It would make sense that they would be - people aren't surrounded by boring friends and associates. Everyone in the world has their own quirks, and no one is a flat character. I think this has to hold true when writing supporting characters. For example, in the real world no one can be labeled the "the brave friend" or even "the mean girl" and have that label sufficiently cover their whole personality. I've seen books that do this, and not all of them are children's books (this flattening of characters can actually be a good thing in some children's books; it simplifies things). In the real world, you have "the brave friend who nonetheless hates heights and would rather not fight anyway" and "the mean girl who's that way because she never got over being a new girl and sings along to show tunes when she goes home".

One writer who creates excellent supporting characters is Joss Whedon. For example, in Firefly each character, whether it's a main character or a supporting one, has distinct personalities, to the point that if you know the character, you have an idea what he or she will say in any given situation. And the dialogue will sound like a real person talking. Yes, I know I'm revealing my geek side by using Whedon as an example, but it's true. He also helped write Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and you can see the same creative supporting characters there. The story just gets better when you have a cast of people, not just one person and a bunch of cardboard cutouts.

Another thing about writing good supporting characters, and this is my favorite reason, is because they're fun! A main character has to be someone a reader can relate with, with reasonable goals and motivations. A supporting character? Not so much. Your supporting characters can be psychopaths, aliens, thieves for the fun of it, anything and everything. The world doesn't need to make sense with a secondary character, so this is where the reader (and the writer) can live their wildest fantasies. I don't know what fantasy Berzen, my lying fugitive firethrower with no sense of self-preservation, is helping me live, but I have to say I really enjoy writing him.