Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Banter is Fun!

Again, sorry this post is late. Sheesh, I'm really failing here, aren't I? I blame the summer and its pull toward procrastination. I also blame myself and not writing over the weekend, forcing me to catch up this week and put that ahead of posting something new on my blog. But, in any case, here it is. I'm not going to review a book I like this week, or really even talk about what I think makes writing good. I'm going to talk about what I've been doing with my time: writing banter.

I've mentioned a story I'm working on, a middle-grade novel about a sixth-grade thief (sorry, retrieval specialist) and how he bites off more than he can chew with a job and has to work with enemy, a sixth-grade girl detective who wants him caught. As I've been writing, I've realized the story is less about how they manage to make things right and more about the relationship between Jeremy (the thief) and Becca (the P.I.). Both these characters are outgoing, clever, and sarcastic, which has been making my job easy. Why? To show the relationship grow and change but still keep the elements of these two personalities, I get to write banter!

Jeremy and Becca are always trying to outsmart each other, and that doesn't stop when they team up. The fight continues with words so I got the chance to try my hand at witty jibes and insults. Here's a passage from my first draft so you can see what I mean, even if the material is still a little rougher than I'd like it to be:

The first thing Becca did when she opened the door was hold out her palm and say, “Hand it over.”
            “Hand what over?”
            “You know what. I can’t in good conscience allow you to keep it.”
            “Can we at least talk strategy first?”
            Becca hardened her jaw and practically shoved her hand in my face. I bet she was thinking about doing it literally.
            I sighed. “Fine.” Reaching into my pocket, I dug out the twenty dollar bill and tossed in her waiting hand. “That belongs to me as payment for my services. Who’s the thief now?”
            Becca smirked. “I don’t think taking it from a locker you broke into counts as legitimate payment. Come in; we have a lot to talk about.”
            I followed her inside to her kitchen table, where we first struck our deal. There was a plate of cookies, two glasses, and a gallon of milk waiting in the center of the table.
            I froze. “What is that?” I asked, pointing at the spread.
            “Snacks,” Becca said. “Don’t they have them where you come from?”
            “What did you do to them? Did you bake truth serum into the cookies? Is it in the milk?”
            Becca rolled her eyes. I was beginning to notice that she did that a lot. “We have a lot to plan, and I thought we’d want something to eat. And if you want to meet the devious, truth-serum-lacing chef, look right over there.” She pointed to a garbage can where an empty store-bought cookie package lay crumpled.
            “If it’s safe, you eat one.” I have to admit, I knew she hadn’t laced the cookies with anything. It was just too much fun to bug her about it.
            “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Becca groaned. But she took a cookie and shoved it in her mouth.
            I did the same, after making a big show out of examining the chips and sniffing the overall dessert. The cookies were pretty good.
            “So, Phase One went pretty well,” Becca said.
            “I guess,” I said. “At least I didn’t get caught.”
“Did you find the key?”
            “Trust me–”
            “I never trust you, Wilderson.”
            “Will you let me finish my sentence? I was going to say, ‘Trust me, you would know if I found the key.’ You’d have it in your hand along with that twenty. Which belongs to me, by the way.”
            “Yeah. And I paid a down payment on the Taj Mahal. I don’t trust you not to lie and keep the master key if you found it.”
            “If that were the case, you’d know I had the key because I wouldn’t be here eating processed cookie. I’d be off breaking into your locker.”
Don't think this is a book full of talking, though. This scene takes place after I show - not tell - Jeremy breaking into a locker and almost getting caught.

I kind of can't wait to go back through and up the crazy through this story. Make the banter more clever and funny, maybe raise the stakes a little higher, and add details about Jeremy's friends. One of them, Case, is a forger/football buff who will never play the game because he doesn't want to damage his sensitive hands. As for the rest of the characters...I want them to all be as quirky.

I'm almost all the way through the first draft of this novel. Middle grade books tend to be from 20,000 to 40,000 words long, and I'm already in that range. There's not much left to say before the story is over and the world is set right for my characters.

That is, until they need each other again. (Hint, hint.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Something Awesome

Sorry this post is a little later than I usually post - about a day late, if we're being optimistic - but I was on vacation so I guess it's lucky that I'm posting at all. If you want to know, the vacation was great. I went swimming, read a lot, and jumped off a cliff. No, I'm not kidding, why do you ask?

Anyway, some of the reading I did inspired this post. I read the second in the Horatio Wilkes mystery series by Alan Gratz. The first one in the series was called Something Rotten and is a modern, mystery version of William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. The second one, the one I read while on vacation, is called Something Wicked. You guessed it - it's based on Macbeth. There's going to be more; according to Gratz's website he's planning another based on A Midsummer Night's Dream to be called Something Foolish, and there may be more after that. I've already talked about my love of retellings, so I want to do a basic review of this series and why I like it.

Gratz's books are YA mysteries, so you have a smart-mouthed teenager poking around where he's not welcome. I will say this up front, that his books are not the cleanest YA I've read, so if you don't like teens drinking alcohol or discussing sex, then this series is probably not for you. Any mystery novel would have those elements and it's not Shakespeare's work is all that pure either. But consider yourself warned.

Moving on. The cool thing about this series is that Gratz does a wonderful job of writing a story that stands on its own but is awesome if you know the play. The protagonist, Horatio Wilkes, is clever and snappy with dialogue. It's fun and exciting to read and the story unfolds like any other mystery. If I didn't know Hamlet and Macbeth as well as I do (it's kind of pathetic how well I know those two plays), I would still get caught up in the murder mystery and relate to the hero and other characters.

But the books are retellings, and for those who have read Shakespeare it is a gold mine of understated references and well-modernized scenes. For example, in Something Wicked the characters go to a psychic where the fatal prophecy is given to Mac and his girlfriend Beth (cute, huh?). They even have the porter scene when Horatio checks into a motel and has to bang on the door to make the manager let him in. There are so many other scenes that come right out of Shakespeare, as well as some wonderful dialogue that is modernized versions of famous lines from the plays.

For a Shakespeare fan looking for something new and exciting, I would definitely recommend the Horatio Wilkes series. I have to say, I'm looking forward to reading Gratz's next installment and any others that follow.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Breaking the Fourth Wall, or, This is a Blog Post

Today I'm going to talk about breaking the fourth wall, which is much easier to do in a blog post than in a novel or film or TV show. Personally, I don't break it very often when I'm writing stories, but I love it when it's done well (or done at all) in other stories. So, I'm going to talk about who does it well and why I think that is.

Breaking the fourth wall, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is an act of metafiction, or something that deconstructs the boundaries set by fiction. The work itself seems aware that it is a work that will have an audience that will enjoy it. Basically, if you are reading or watching something that references itself or talks about itself as a work of fiction, then it's breaking the fourth wall. For examples of this, please watch anything by the Muppets, because if they don't break the fourth wall into dust particles (and probably every other wall involved in the making of the film), it's not the Muppets.

Lately I started reading a book series by fantasy great Brandon Sanderson that does quite a lot of breaking the fourth wall. It's the Alcatraz series, a fantasy series for middle grade/young adult audiences that barely acknowledges the fourth wall, if it does at all. The premise of the books is the world is held captive by evil Librarians, and a 13-year-old boy named Alcatraz Smedry somehow is going to save the world from them. He also has a Talent for breaking things, but you really should read the books if you want o know more about that.

However, the story is apparently told by a much older Alcatraz who is doing everything he can to convince the audience that 1) the book is true, 2) he is a terrible person and a liar, and 3) everything you know about the world is false. The narrator repeatedly breaks the fourth wall by mentioning that he's working with Brandon Sanderson (whose books are too big and heavy to be of any use other than knocking yourself unconscious) and by talking directly to the audience about writers and books and other relevant topics. The books know they're books, if that makes sense, so the fourth wall is broken.

Another book series like this is The Name of this Book is Secret series by Pseudonymous Bosch. The writer spends the whole series pleading with the reader to stop making him tell you everything because it's too horrible. But he does, and you read, and it goes on.

I really love it when a book breaks the fourth wall, but it's not appropriate for all stories. All of my examples are quirky, crazy stories that appeal to younger audiences (though I think adults would enjoy them too). More epic stories are better off without it; I can't imagine The Lord of the Rings breaking the fourth wall without it feeling out of place. This literary device is funny, and best suited to comedy. And when used in comedy, it just makes the funny all the more awesome.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"Avatar" vs. "The Last Airbender"

As you can tell from the title of this post, this is going to be one of those times where I let my geek flag fly. If you have any problem with that, I'm surprised you didn't abandon my blog when I mentioned  my love for The Avengers, The Lord of the Rings, and Joss Whedon. However, I will discuss elements of writing so hang on.

Due to equally geeky friends, I have been encouraged in recent weeks to watch the Nickelodeon kids' TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender. I have to say, I really enjoyed it - it was as good as I was told. The story is epic (actually reminded me of a children's LOTR in several episodes), intricate and well-told. The best part was the vibrant characters. After watching the series, I watched M. Night Shyamalan live-action film The Last Airbender, widely acknowledged by fans of the TV show as a terrible movie. I had first seen the film before watching the series, so I wanted to understand why it was so painful to watch.

I understand now. Watching the film, it felt like something was lacking. After giving it some thought, I figured out why that was: the TV show is character-driven, but the film is made by an artist who excels at telling plot-driven stories.

Shyamalan is an excellent filmmaker - Signs and The Sixth Sense are classics. He is a master at the plot-driven film, the movie you watch not to necessarily see character development but because you know you're going to get blindsided with some revelation before the end (think Sixth Sense). Quick definition: plot-driven stories are ones where the main point of the story is the plot. What happens, rather than who it happens to. They ask, "What if the world were like this? What would happen?" whereas character-driven stories ask, "If this happened, how would this person react? What would happen as a result of that character's actions?" My personal rule of thumb for telling the two apart is if I find myself caring more about finding out what's about to happen next than what the characters do, it's plot-driven.

Plot-driven is excellent for suspense - you're supposed to care more about what's about to happen because a good suspense storyteller can put you in the place of the protagonist. I don't think anyone will argue that Shyamalan is no good at the suspense film. The problem with The Last Airbender is it based on a series that is character-driven, but made by a man who does plot-driven stories. Thus, in the film the power of the characters in the TV show are sacrificed to make way for the plot. Aang isn't as energetic and peace-loving. Katara loses her fight. Sokka's not nearly as funny. And, though I can't believe I'm saying this, Zuko isn't angry enough. Fans never watched the series for the plot, since from the first two episodes you know exactly how the show is going to end. They watched it for the characters, so when those characters appeared in the film as pale and weakened versions of themselves, they rejected the movie.

I'm not going to bash on the film. As it stands alone, it's not too bad. But it could have been better if a writer/producer who typically writes character-driven stories had taken on the project. M. Night Shyamalan, sadly, was not in his element in this case. And for those of you familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender, the pun in the last sentence was totally intended.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Importance of Characters

It's been a good week. I'm gearing up for a lot of rewriting when the editor gets back to me, but I'm also developing new story ideas. I've got a pretty long line of these and I need to figure out which ones have priority. That's almost as hard as rewriting. But, in the meantime, I'm reading good books and watching good movies. Somewhere in there I had an epiphany: plot doesn't matter.

Okay, it does. A bit. A lot, in fact. Without a plot you have no story, and Aristotle considered it the most important part. But what I realized is that most plots are similar. If you pick up a book to read a plot structure you've never seen before, you're going to be disappointed. Books nowadays get their appeal less from unique plots and more from how the writer adapts the details of the plot and how the characters interact.

Which brings me to the main point of my epiphany. My favorite books, stories, movies, TV shows, etc. have characters I relate to and kind of love. The ones I dislike have characters I have a hard time relating to. For example, this past week I watched A River Runs Through It, which is a classic and a beautiful movie, but I had a hard time relating or even liking any character so it didn't do much for me. On the other hand, I love the movie How to Train Your Dragon because I can relate with the awkward, nerdy protagonist (that says a lot about me) and also because I like the other characters. They are funny and sometimes pretty awesome, and even if I'm not like them part of me sometimes wants to be. The same thing happens when I read Rick Riordan's books, the Artemis Fowl series, and many other books.

What does this mean for writing? Don't worry if the plot is familiar to you. I mean, if it's too familiar you may have a copyright problem, but in the end your originality will show through your characters. In essence, a story is about people and the plot is what those people do. If the characters are strong and likeable - at least, the ones you're supposed to like - readers will enjoy the story no matter how simple the plot. Hey, it works for Pixar.