Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Song & Dance

Some brief things about my life before getting into the topic I really want to comment on: I started my graduate studies this week. It's going to waste me, it's so much work already. I have a job in addition to my studies, which are work-heavy this semester. I have a short story due every other day for one class, and in another I will complete a novel by the final. Not to mention that my classmates are stupendous writers, so I'll learn a lot but my grade will likely suffer when my professors compare me to them. Oh, well. I'm here to learn my craft as well as I can. As long as I pass.

On to lighter things. I wanted to talk about musicals today. I know I'm the story fanatic, and I generally deal with the verbal elements of storytelling like dialogue and plot, but I feel like something needs to be said in defense of using music to tell parts of a story. I hear way to many people call musicals "gay" or "lame" because the characters break into song and dance to express their emotions. I don't think that's fair; it's kind of like bashing a fantasy novel because dragons don't really riddle with hobbits.

No one really, truly, actually in real life starts singing and dancing in an elaborate musical number with a bunch of people who know the same song and choreography - here's a good example of that from Disney. I get that. I want to talk about why the writers would have chosen to include music and dance in their storytelling. First off, I'm sure a lot do it because it's entertaining. It's amusing to see people dancing on stage, and song is beautiful to human ears. It's not me saying this, it's generations of proof. We like rhythm, and we like spectacle.

However, music and dance can be powerful non-verbal means of showing emotion. I think of songs in musicals as soliloquies, often set apart from the movement of the plot and meant to allow the audience to see deeper into a character. The character has a problem. Does he view it with humor or concern? Well, is the song upbeat and bouncy, or is it heavy and in a minor key? The words can be exactly the same, but the two different tones can color our impression of who the character is. Imagine, for a moment, that in a scary part of a thriller movie the music wasn't the intense, suspense-building kind normally used but the optimistic, swelling strains of a romantic comedy. How would that change your impression of that scene?

Dance is the physical movement of emotions, in a musical. The same rules apply - are they leaping with happiness or trudging along?

I feel like allowing music to carry some of the weight of characterization frees musicals to not place as much emphasis on the words. I love words, don't get me wrong, but when 90% of human communication is non-verbal, maybe we get things more when we see and hear the story in other places than just the words.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Pros and Cons of Surprises

This week I want to discuss something that is surprisingly touchy for me: whether or not it is better to end a story with a shocking revelation. That is, a big surprise reveal that tells the reader he or she has been tricked the whole time, that the truth is not what it has seemed to be. This might not sound like a very controversial subject, but after reading On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, I have seen that one can argue quite extensively on this.

Gardner's view is that surprising the reader at the end is poor writing because it eliminates what makes fiction writing "good." That means, the character development, the difficult choices, and the internal strife that makes a story worth reading. In his opinion, the "victim story", a story told from the perspective of someone who eventually gets used or harmed in some way, is useless because the victim doesn't know that this is happening until the end, and cannot act on it. Think of a story written from the perspective of someone unknowingly being conned out of his life savings. Until the end, there is no conflict for him, no problems. Now imagine the same story, but either told from the perspective of the con artist (questions of morality, fear of getting caught) or the victim, but this time the victim knows he's being conned. In this second case, maybe he knows the con artist personally and has reasons for going along with it. What would they be? Why would it be preferable to lose all his money rather than turn in, or even just brush off, the con artist? Gardner's point is that a story where the character knows the problems and has to deal with them is a much more interesting story.

However, I think there are times when it's okay to shock the reader with surprises at the end. It worked for O. Henry of "The Gift of the Magi" fame. One can make the argument that mystery writers have no choice but to surprise the reader. Yet, I feel like I should add a qualification to this part. O. Henry's stories were short stories, and a reader didn't need much patience to get to the big reveal in the end. Holding out revealing something huge until the end in a novel requires lying to the reader; there's no other way to keep a secret for so long.

Mystery novels can have some kind of huge revelation at the end because the plot revolves around searching for the truth. The story is not about character development - well, some may be, but mostly that's not the case - it's about getting the bad guy and finding out how he did it. However, while the plot may end with a surprise, many mystery novels hide little clues along the way that let readers catch on, if they're observant.

So, what's my final opinion? Surprises have their place, but probably not in a long work like a novel unless it's a mystery novel. Even then, a writer has to be careful to let the story flow and not work to obscure the truth to the reader. That's never a good thing. Why is this touchy for me? I have written at least one story with a big, snappy reveal at the end, and now I have begun to question whether or not my story could be stronger if my characters knew more from the beginning. They would not be victims; they would have the power to act in their circumstances. And then, who knows what consequences they would set in motion?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Much of Madness

For those of you who thought that last week I would talk about the use of mental illness in writing, here you go. Today I'm actually going to talk about it. I took a class on mental illness in film and literature, so hopefully I sound like I know what I'm talking about.

Personally, I kind of enjoy the use of madness in literature, if only because it tends to complicate things a little. In my own writing, I like to use a facsimile of mental illness because it causes tension between characters. For example, a character may behave in an insane way but be sane, but the other characters see only the actions and none of the method. The sane character may have a method, or be just as confused as everyone else as to what is going on but still feels that he has not quite lost his mind. Not yet. It makes the characters develop in the way they interact with themselves and others, and makes for interesting writing.

Also, it is an interesting experiment for the writer when he or she tries to write from the perspective of someone with a mental illness. In my class we studied different kinds of mental illness and how they distort the way a person views the world. Everything, from depression to schizophrenia to dissociative identity disorder, change the way a person views the world and they are all different. When constructing a character, it's one thing to say "she's crazy" and it's another to say "she has bipolar depression". With a specific illness in mind, the writer can't make the character do anything he or she wants. The writer has to try to see the world as someone with that specific illness would.

But, like with all things, I think using mental illness in writing should be used as appropriate. Throwing in a crazy character simply because he is crazy is bad writing, only out for flash and amazement. Especially since, today, mental illness is a sensitive subject for many people. Research has to be done, and it has to be done well. As much as I like Poe and Lovecraft and all those Romantic writers with their swoons and brain fevers, their version of madness isn't usually that accurate nowadays, and it's definitely not politically correct. Care needs to be taken to make sure the story's use of mental illness is as appropriate and true-to-life as possible.

That, of course, is more important for realistic fiction. In science fiction and fantasy, the reader can assume something supernatural or not yet understood is at play, making characters lose their minds in ways we don't know anything about in our world. But still, it must be done as the story needs it. I believe that, as much as possible, all the elements of the story should contribute something. If it doesn't develop character, push the plot along, or worldbuild (or anything else I neglected to mention that makes the story grow), it doesn't need to be there.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

How to Quickly Lose Your Mind

If you got excited upon reading the title of this post, thinking that I was going to talk about using madness in writing, then I'm sorry. That's not happening this week. It's a great idea for a blog post topic, and I'm sure I'll hit it soon, but I have to admit I'm not mentally capable of writing something intellectual. I have learned how to go crazy in only a few days, and it will be a while before I recover.

Here it is: on Thursday my editor sent back my novel manuscript with 308 comments on it, not including in-text issues like comma placement and awkwardly phrased sentences. The publisher would like to get my book out relatively soon and I'm starting grad school in a few weeks. Thus, I feel pressure to finish making revision as soon as possible so the publisher can keep their schedule and I can focus on my writing for school and not fall behind in my classes. It is now Tuesday, and I am on comment 225. My head hurts.

Through this process I'm learning valuable lessons about myself and about how to revise with an editor. I am addicted to writing and have to set goals for myself, or I keep going until I can't think anymore. That sounds weird: setting goals so I can stop sooner. Right now the goal is revise 50 pages a day, which is more than manageable given my current empty schedule. But all that writing is removing me from the real world, which is making me act a little crazy. I'm excited by my writing, mentally fatigued, and crazy. Not a good combination for social functions. Or maybe it is - I guess it depends on what kind of social functions you enjoy.

As for writing with comments from an editor, it's interesting. I usually make the changes he suggests, because they really do make the book more awesome, but I am stubborn and always try to find a way to do it my way. Probably not the best mindset, but it keeps my voice in there. The worst part is when he suggests a change I don't want to make, but in trying to keep things the way they are and still make sense, I realize he is right and it should be changed. On the other hand, it's cool to see that he recognizes my characters are as cool as I think they are!

Sorry this post isn't more interesting. I just have a lot on my mind right now. I'll keep you posted on publishing details!