Tuesday, January 31, 2012

2012 King of the Hill Movie Challenge

Hanna v One For the Money

Clutch battle! Can Stephanie Plum topple the undefeated Hanna in the 2012 King of the Hill Movie Challenge? I can assure you, this will be the LAST movie of January. The only thing that I'll be watching from now until February is tonight's episode of New Girl. There will be no movies for me until February.  The winner of this battle will be going to the brackets.  Let's get this battle started!

For those who do not know, the 2012 King of the Hill Movie Challenge is my system for determining the best movie of year that I saw. One movie from each month will be selected and, at the end of the year, I will do a tournament style showdown where they will take each other on until the final movie has been selected.  Bracket placement will be determined by the number of movies the monthly movie faced and won.  

Challenger: One for the Money
Director: Julie Anne Robinson

Writer: Stacy Sherman, Karen Ray, Liz Brixius. Based on the novel by Janet Evanovich

Starring: Katherine Heigl

One for the Money is the story of Stephanie Plum (Katherine Heigl), a former lingerie store manager who is need of money. She picks up a job, working for her cousin as a bails bondsman. Her first target happens to be a cop on the run, Joe Morelli (Jason O'Mara). Stephanie and Joe have a bit of history, and Stephanie is very eager to bring him in for her reward of fifty grand.

The movie certainly wasn't bad. It definitely deserves better recognition than the ratings I've been hearing about online. The story was impressive and fast paced. Stephanie's character is clearly over her head at the start of the film. As the story progresses, you see her develop. This sort of character growth was a great addition to the film. The movie also deserves props for the humor. There were some absolutely hysterical scenes. The movie also did a good job of blending the humor, action, and suspense together.

Before I get into the problem areas of the film, allow me to take a moment to rip apart the opening credits. Those opening credits were horrible. I'm sorry, I was rolling on my sides laughing about how horrible those credits were. I could not believe that they were associated with the film. It struck me as more of a “lipstick James Bond” opening. Maybe that was the point and I missed it. It really set a bad precedent for the movie. You do not want me snarking at a movie before the opening credits have finished.

While I liked the movie, it wasn't a perfect film. Although the plot was impressive, Stephanie had a lot of information fall into her lap. I wanted to see her find more of these leads in the movie. That just wasn't the case. For example, Stephanie goes to have dinner with her family only to find out they have invited over a blind date. This blind date happens to drop a piece of critical piece of information into Stephanie's lap. I'd have liked to see less of the plot bus coming to her and more of her hunting down that very bus. This was, really, the most negative I could get. The problem with this film is that while it had a good story and good character development, it wasn't anything special. No part of this movie jumped out and made it exciting. And, that isn't going to be enough to topple Hanna.

Winner: Hanna

January King of the Hill Movie Summary:

January King of the Hill Winner: Hanna

Monday, January 30, 2012

How To Write An Unsolicited Query Letter

On Friday, I submitted my first novel to an agent. While this act does not make me an author, it does bring me a step closer to that goal. I've reached the the longest of the six requirements outlined in my Writing Is Hard entry. I must wait. I have no idea how long to expect for a response. If this were a normal case of an unsolicited query letter, I'd expect five to six months, possibly a year. In this case, the agent had indicated she was out of unsolicited queries and was requesting more. Hopefully, this puts me near the top of the pile and will give me only a couple of months of waiting.

Sending a query letter was a process. I've never done one before, and I can't be completely certain I did this correctly. What I can tell you is that the internet is full of conflicting advice. I used several different resources on the internet to piecemeal together my final query letter.

What is an Unsolicited Query Letter?
A query letter is a letter outlining your interest in publishing your novel and information about the novel you'd like to see published. Most query letters will be unsolicited; that is to say, query letters that were not directly requested by the agent or editor. In my case, I was made aware of an agent looking for submissions. This was still an unsolicited query letter. She asked for submissions, but did not ask ME for submissions.

Step 1. Outline Your Story
This step is listed first because it can be completed long before you should be hunting down an agent or writing a query letter. If you write your stories by outline, this step should have been completed long ago. If you are a pantster, I recommend doing this during a read through of your novel. Break the story down into chapters and outline the major events of each chapter. This will be a reference later. You can skip this step, but I recommend against it. I got this tip from Writing World.

Step 2. Determine the Agent/Editor's Submission Guidelines
Every editor and agent is going to be different. Be certain you check what they prefer before you send an unsolicited query letter. These guidelines are your first in. You are being told exactly what they want for information. Figure it out. Find what they want. Search around. Ask. Trust me when I say that this is for the better. I couldn't find two articles online that agreed on how you should do a query letter otherwise.

Step 3. Write the Components
The best I can figure out, there are three parts to most query letters. You have your initial query, the story synopsis, and your writing excerpt.

Step 3, Part 1: Hook, Mini-Synopsis, and Biography
My research in query letters led me to a site that defines them as being three paragraphs long and a single page. This page does contain information that should be included in any submission. You need to have information on your hook, you need to have a mini-synopsis, and you should include a biography. I recommend going with the advice I linked earlier in the paragraph. However, for the hook, you do have a bit more flexibility (or at least, so I've been told). The hook doesn't have to be a one-sentence summary of your story. It can be a statement as to why you think your story should be published. In the case of my query, I pointed out that fairy tales are in and that the story will do well in the current market.

Step 3, Part 2: The Synopsis
If the agent or editor you are submitting to wants a synopsis, now is the time to write it. Do not use the outline you wrote in Step 1. You will instead be using that outline to aid you in writing your synopsis. The agent I submitted to was looking for two pages double spaced. That left me little room to work with. I had to condense it and still allow the story carry through. My first draft of my synopsis was two and a half pages long. I rewrote the synopsis twice. In the end, I felt my synopsis hit the important elements.

One trick that I found useful during the two page synopsis was eliminating minor characters. It takes a sentence to explain how the minor character interacted with my main character and I spent another sentence explaining why it was connected to the plot. By eliminating as many minor characters as I could, I was able to put down a more concise synopsis.

Step 3, Part 3: The Excerpt
Find the excerpt you are using for you query. Copy and paste it into a new document. Have a friend or a loved one read it over. Read it over again. Read it out loud. Make sure it is free of any grammatical issues. Make sure it is captivating. Read it once more to be absolutely certain. The first two parts of your query are where you sell your skills at plotting and making a book that an editor/agent wants. This third part is where you have to sell your skills at writing.

Step 4: Put Together the Email
Never send attachments. If you refuse to not send an attachment, save your document in a Microsoft Word format unless they specify otherwise. Even if you send an attachment, be sure to include the text in the body of your email. I used hyphen breaks to make it easier to find each section of the email. Make sure you include a greeting in the front and to thank them at the end.

Step 5 – 999998: Build Up the Courage to Click Send
I'm not going to lie here. I had a very hard time clicking send. I closed my eyes, listened to the music that was playing. Ironically, it was my favorite song, Army of Love by Kerli. When I had convinced myself that this was the next logical step for me, I clicked send. My eyes were still closed at the time.

Step 999999: Click Send.
Click Send. Reward yourself with something. You've earned it.

Step +1

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Whatever Wednesday: Meet the Cats

For this installment of Whatever Wednesday, I'm going to introduce you to the cats in my world.  These cats are one of the most wonderful things in my life.  So, without further ado, here are my cats:

Nicknames: Herc, Herkemer, Herky
Type: American Short-Hair
Age: 11 years

About Herc:
I have always had cats around me in my life.  Despite this, there has rarely been a cat that I brought into my life.  Hercules was the cat that changed that for me.  Alice and I got him together and he's been with us for almost the length of our entire marriage. We got him from a childhood neighbor of Alice's when Herc was only a year old. He has been there through the best and the worst parts of our life. By my count, Hercules has been with us through seven moves from one home to another. He hates moves and can tell if we are preparing for another.

Herc is about as laid back as a cat can get. He is friendly, affectionate, and has never used his claws on anyone on purpose. The only time someone was scratched by Herc was when he fell and was trying to catch himself. Herc is also one of the smartest cats I know. Alice has trained even him to do High Fives. If you hold you hand up in front of him, he'll smack it with his paw. It is super cute.

No matter how many, or what cats we've had in our house, Herc couldn't care less.  He doesn't get into fights and is very content with doing his own thing.  Unfortunately, Herc's idea of doing his own thing does involve getting onto the counters and eating fish, chicken, or any other food that was left unattended.  Outside of stealing food from the counters, Herc is a well behaved cat.  Lately, he has been coming around and telling us to go to bed.  Or at least that's what we think he is saying.  Did I mention he is a very, vocal kitty?  Yeah, Herc loves to communicate.

Writing Influence:
Hercules is the primary inspiration behind my short story Timid the Cat Goes to War. I returned to our home in Asheville, NC one afternoon to discover the screen knocked out. Risu hadn't gotten very far and was quickly recovered. Herc was missing. For over twenty-four hours, Alice and I did everything we could to try and find Herc. We were worried we had lost him for ever. This area, after all, had a tendency to eat cats. He returned the following day on his own with no explanation as to where he had been or what he had been up to. I decided after this moment to write a story explaining what exactly catsdo when they go missing.

In my novel, The Rose and the Crown, Vincent wakes up after having fallen asleep in a chair to discover that a cat has curled up on his lap. This was also inspired by Hercules and his behavior of curling up next to people sleeping in chairs as if it were a part of his daily routine.

Nicknames: Brat, Princess Prissy Pants
Type: Siberian (Believed to be purebred)
Age: 5 years

About Risu:
We did not pick Risu. Risu picked us. I woke up from an overnight shift and heard piteous mewing from bushes outside our apartment. The source of this crying was Risu. When I lowered myself down to the ground, she ran towards me and hoped up into my arms. I couldn't turn her away. We put signs up and, much to my eternal joy, no one claimed the fluff ball of happiness. We named her Risu, the Japanese word for squirrel.

Risu has a kitty crush on me. She wants everything in her life to do with me. If I lie down on the floor, she'll snuggle up next to me. If I sit on the futon, she will curl up beside me or behind me. At night, she climbs up next to me and gets under my right elbow, making reading difficult. She also is kind enough to inform me when the clock reads 5:00 AM. Why? I have no idea.

Risu also is obsessed with the sink. She'll run ahead of us in the hall if we are heading towards the bathroom and leap into the sink. Half of the time, she'll drink from the sink if we give her a chance. The other half, she looks at us like we are crazy.  Do believe me?  I offer you video proof.

Writing Influence:
I have a WIP titled, “Finnish Cat Story”. This story is about a young man, Eric, whose cat is accidentally stowed onto the wrong plane and is flown to Finland instead of Boston. Eric uproots his entire life and leaves for the strange country he knows nothing about to recover his cat. There, he spends a six month quarantine with his pet, eating into his life savings for this one cat. The cat in this story is directly influenced by Risu. I adore this cat so much, words can not describe it. She is a complete brat. She does hundreds of things that drive me crazy. And yet, I love her. It is also clear that she loves me very much and just wants to be close to me. I felt this kind of love deserved recognition in writing.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

2012 King of the Hill Movie Challenge

Hanna v Red Tails v Haywire

My wife and I went out to catch two movies on Saturday night. We had a great time, even if it means I have to do a three-way movie battle for Top Movie of January. It's getting dangerously close to the end of the month. Future challengers are growing less likely to appear.

For those who do not know, the 2012 King of the Hill Movie Challenge is my system for determining the best movie of year that I saw.  One movie from each month will be selected and, at the end of the year, I will do a tournament style showdown where they will take each other on until the final movie has been selected.

First Challenger: Red Tails
Director:  Anthony Hemmingway

Writer:  John Ridley

Starring:  Cuba Gooding Jr, Gerald McRaney, David Oyelowo

George Lucas brings to the screen the story of the Tuskegee airmen from World War 2.  The story of the Tuskegee airmen is about an all black flying squadron and the racial tensions they faced. Historically speaking, the Tuskegee airmen were originally denied flight into dangerous missions because of the perception that blacks weren't smart enough or talented enough to handle air combat. Because of this, the Tuskegee airmen sat at an airbase with shoddy planes and did training exercises and simple patrols to pass the time. When they were finally called out into the war, they were one of the best fighters to be found.

Overall, the movie was very entertaining. It did a good job of carrying over the story of the Tuskegee airmen to the silver screen. The action sequences were a great balance of excitement and bloody realism. The plot of the movie was strong and carried it well. As a movie, however, it fell far short of what was needed to top the reigning champion, Hanna. Red Tails is predictable. I don't know if the characters were based on real people, but they felt like typical war story archetypes. You have your “reckless one” character, a “drink to make it through the war” character, and even the “young and trying to prove himself” character. The dialogue also drove me crazy during some of the scenes. There were actual times during the movie that I thought I was looking at a rough draft of the script.  It is also important to note that the movie did a poor job putting it across that it was as much the experience of the pilots as it was their style of defending bombers that made them heroes of the war.  The way this movie was written, it seems like the white pilots needed only to stick with the bombers to make sure they made it through on the flight.  In reality, the Tuskegee pilots put their skills to shame.

On a side-note, I do plan on addressing the Red Tails more closely to address it from the standpoint of a writer. It just won't be this post.

Winner: Hanna

Second Challenger: Haywire
Director: Steven Sodenbergh

Writer:  Lem Dobbs

Starring:  Gina Carano, Ewan McGreggor, Michael Fassbender

Can a female protagonist action flick take down another female protagonist action flick? That's the question I was asking myself going into Haywire. Haywire is the story of Mallory Kane, a private contractor secret agent style, ex-Marine. The movie opens mid-story before it jumps back to the past and fills in some of the questions of the opening script.

For a spy flick, I was extremely impressed. All spy movies need fancy technology. This movie was no exception. Instead of getting the super strange and uniquely applicable technology of James Bond, you get straight up fancy devices that seem plausible in the real world. Speaking of plausible, the fight sequences were most definitely closer to what you'd expect in the real life. Unfortunately, the fights tended to look similar to each other. There is only so many places you can hit, throw, or choke someone before it becomes repetitive.

And then there is the chase scene. I'm not going to spoil it, you have to see this sequence. It involves off road driving and a great deal of it is done with a car in reverse. Even if you don't see the movie, you have to look this scene up. As a writer and a member of the audience I was very impressed. Another element of the movie that impressed me was the character of Mallory Cane. She is a strong, female protagonist who succeeds at what she does because of who she is. And dammit, if she doesn't have some endurance. WOW.

In the end, Haywire falls short of Hanna. It only missed the mark by a short bit. The plot of Haywire was both simple and convoluted. It utilizes “In medias res”, a technique that I can't stand. The movie opens at a scene, jumps back to the beginning of the story and eventually gets to the opening scene and moves past it. I found it difficult to keep up with the plot and the characters. When, at the ending, you learn what was going on, it was hard for me to follow what the ultimate plan was. Also, while the story is about Mallory, it doesn't have the same journey that Hanna undertakes. Overall, I liked the journey of Hanna more than the journey of Mallory.

Haywire is a “must see”, but it isn't Hanna.

Winner: Hanna

Writing is Hard

“When I retire, I'm going to perform brain surgery.”

This is a joke shared by some of us in our writing circle. Outside of writing circles, there is this perception that writing a book is as simple as sitting down in front of a computer and pounding away at the keyboard. It isn't. It's never easy. If anyone tells you it is easy, they are lying or have a misconception about the writing process.

From my personal understanding and experience, there are six requirements to write:
  • You have to know the writing craft.
  • You have to commit to writing and actually write.
  • You have to be able to look at your story and make changes.
  • You have to be willing to send your story to other people.
  • You have to be able to wait for long periods of time.
  • You have to be willing to make changes that other people tell/suggest you to make.

You have to know the writing craft.
In order to be a writer, you have to know how to write. This might sound simple. It isn't. I've wanted to be a writer since I was thirteen. I've devoted almost my entire life to creating stories, developing them, and writing. Despite all of this, I am still learning. I make obvious mistakes. I'm willing to bet that my wife will find at least one grammatical error in this blog post. I know the rules, but I let them slip. And this is just the grammatical rules. You need to know how to work with dramatic tension, the structure of a story, character development, and a hundred other elements of a story. Fortunately, you don't need to be a master of these rules, you just need to know them and continually strive to improve at them.

You have to commit to writing and actually write.
Anyone who has actually written can tell you that it is easy to claim you are going to write, but the act of getting yourself to do so is surprisingly difficult. There is a world of distractions just beyond the range of your word processor. You have the vast internet. There are shows on television that you are trying to keep up with or, perhaps, catch up on. You might have a pile of books on your night stand that you need to read. The dogs might need walking. The dishes might need doing. You might decide that now is the time to get to that pile of mail, currently sitting on your desk in such a massive pile that it has toppled over, covering a remote control that shouldn't be there in the first place and the whole pile needs to be picked up this second. The only way to write, is to stop making excuses and make the time to write.
What a writer's desk MIGHT look like.
You have to be able to look at your story and make changes.
Completing a story is difficult and congratulations are in order to anyone who gets the story down on paper. The feeling of accomplishment is powerful and I find it very difficult to draw a comparison to anything else I have done before. While completing a story leaves you feeling accomplished, it isn't enough. The story is going to need revisions. It won't just be a single revision, it is often going to be several revisions. In the case of my novel, The Rose and the Crown, I just finished my fifth draft a few days ago. That makes a grand total of five times I've gone through the entire novel from start to finish. Is it done? No. There are changes that still need to be made, but the changes that remain aren't as serious as previous drafts. You will have to cut scenes. You will have to remove characters. You will have to correct continuity errors. And you will have to repeat this process all over again to fix the scenes that no longer fit the changes of your previous draft. I have never heard of an author doing it right the first time. It is simply unheard of.

You have to be willing to send your story to other people.
This is another one of those steps that sounds easy in theory, but is difficult in practice. Feedback is both necessary and difficult. Eventually someone is going to have to look at your manuscript. They are going to have to read it. And, eventually, someone is going to have to tell you what they thought of it. Will they judge you? Will they hate it? Will they compare it Twilight, forcing you into a fit of justified homicide? These are thoughts that go through the writer's head before they hand it out. It can take a bit of willpower to get over this obstacle.

You have to be able to wait for long periods of time.
In an alternative reality, there is a world where authors write a story, click “send”, and after a few minutes, they check their bank account and find that the balance has gone up a hundred thousand dollars. In reality, the book publishing process is slow (and pays much less). You will have to write your story, edit your story, and muster the willpower to send the story to someone. Then you must wait. And, let me tell you that waiting is a very difficult thing to do. It's like Christmas, only you have no idea when Santa is coming and you have no idea if he's leaving you the present you wanted or a lump of coal.

I currently have a short story I'm waiting to hear back on. I sent it out over four months ago. Every single time I check the mail, I'm hoping the letter will be there. At this point, I don't care if it's a rejection. I just want to hear something back.

This isn't the only time you have to wait. If you've been accepted for publication, you still have to turn in the manuscript and wait for the editor to give you changes to make. And, if you have turned in your final manuscript, you have to wait once again for the book to go to print and hit the shelves. All told, you may spend as much time waiting as you spent writing.

You have to be willing to make changes that other people tell/suggest you to make.
This can be a very, very hard thing to have to deal with depending completely on the suggestion. Yet, it is something you must be able to face in order to progress forward as writer. At some point in time, you are going to get a credible suggestion for a change to make to your story. This will not be a change you initially want to make. This may come from someone in your writing group with a very good point or from five beta readers saying the exact same thing. This very well might come from an editor who knows the craft well. Sooner or later, you are going to have to change something that you do not want to change.

This can be one of the hardest decisions you ever make. It is impossible to know what form this will take, until it transpires. It might be a scene that needs to be deleted. It might even be removing a character. Whatever the change is, it will be for something that you think is important or necessary for the narrative. Part of the writing process is, unfortunately, being able to recognize that something needs to change or go.

So yes, writing is hard. Still, I love every second of it (no I don't). And when I retire, I'm going to perform brain surgery.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Whatever Wednesday: SOPA

Today I'm starting a new feature that I call Whatever Wednesday. Instead of talking about writing on Wednesdays, I'm going to talk about whatever I feel like. For my first WW, I figured it would be appropriate to talk about SOPA.  SOPA has been extensively covered online.  Instead of talking about it, I'm going to talk about the reactionary politics behind it. 

I never paid much attention to politics until the Columbine Shooting. After the Columbine Shooting, I became aware of a bass ackwards form of politics. Politicians would react to a news event by trying to pass a law or a bill to address this news event. There are plenty of examples out there if you are interested in searching around the internet. 

These laws aren't always horrible, but they usually are. The Brady Bill is a great example of a reactionary bill that made sense. Brady was the press secretary for Ronald Reagan who was shot and nearly killed by a would-be assassin. The law requires a five-day waiting period before a handgun can be purchased. The bill's purpose offered a system that would have prevented an event that took place.  The Patriot Act is an example of reactionary politics done poorly.  It was a response to 9/11 and many provisions of it have been shot down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States.

After Columbine, Congress tried to pass a bill to ban the sale of violent video games of minors. SOPA is not that different from this reaction. SOPA is a shotgun reaction to a much more complicated issue. Piracy does happen. Piracy does cost artists money. But piracy is one of the unfortunately drawbacks of a system of free information online. There are ways to fight it, but Congress should not be doing so at the whim of the corporations that want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Stop reactionary politics. Stop SOPA.

I would also like to personally apologize for voting for Kristen Gillibrand. I assure you that I will not be repeating this mistake.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Dialogue and Motivation

Let me start by saying I promise to never post a blog without first rereading it.  My last blog post was written while I was tired.  I posted it without so much as giving it a second's glance.  I had promised to edit it the following day, but only managed to get to it yesterday.  I was embarrassed by what I read.

When it comes to dialogue, I'm not an expert.  Dialogue is an area I frequently find myself struggling with.  My wife is the local expert.  One of her pieces of advice is to pay attention to conversations in television, real life, and literature.  It is most definitely a useful trick.

I'm going to compare two opposites: Alf and Dark Shadows.  The two television shows differ in every way, but one (two if you count the fact that both have a character named Willie).  The dialogue for both shows is terrible.  I've been watching through Dark Shadows slowly over the last several months.  Last night we reached the 111th episode available.  I also recently watched the pilot of the 80's sitcom, Alf.  One show is a soap opera drama with the supernatural.  The other is an episodic sitcom about an extraterrestrial.

Dialogue should be simple.  It is the choice of words characters use when speaking to each other.  We are exposed to dialogue every time we have a conversation.  Yet, with so much exposure, you'd think that writers would be able to piece together believable conversations onto a page.  Unfortunately, this doesn't happen.  There are a few reasons for this, but I think one of the most blatant sources for this poor writing is motivation.  This is part of the reason I find that Dark Shadow's dialogue is scores better than the dialogue used in Alf.

Everyone has motivation.  When we speak, we aren't just blurting something out at random.  We have our reasons for saying what we say.  This is just as important in writing as it is in the real world.  When writers forget this, the purpose of the dialogue becomes muddied.  Often times, writers will forget the overall character in exchange for the momentary motivation.  In the pilot of Alf, Willie has this wonderful line:
Willie:  "Alright, alright.  Just give me one day, okay.  If I can't get Alf going, we'll tell someone.  Just one day."
The dialogue makes me weep inside.  Not just because of how terrible it reads, but because of Willie's motivation.  This is the type of concern one would have with in-laws that won't leave.  However, Willie is talking about an alien from another planet.  After an earlier piece of dialogue, it is established the military would probably do experiments on Alf if they had him.  So, his argument is for a single day before they tell someone.  It's as if Willie completely forgotten about what will happen to Alf should the military find him.  This is a momentary motivation convenient for the single scene.  A more fitting piece of dialogue would have been, "Just give me one day.  If I can't get Alf going, we'll figure out something."  In the alternative piece of dialogue, it leaves a sense of uncertainty with Willie.  It might be tell someone, or it might be getting Alf to find somewhere else to go.

Meanwhile, over in Dark Shadows land, the characters have their motivations, they just have dialogue that isn't well written.  In Episode 321, Sam Evans, at the decision of Maggie Evans, has set a trap for Maggie's attacker.  A rumor has been spread to summon her attacker to the home where the sheriff's men are waiting.  This plan has been building for a couple of episodes now.  In one scene, Maggie is in her room when Sam comes in.
Sam:  "There are men all over the place.  Now if you hear anything, you just give a yell and they'll come running."
The motivation of Sam is present.  He is trying to comfort his daughter, Maggie.  The line doesn't even read that poorly out of context.  In context, this is clearly exposition.  They could have shown the men, or let the reader assume the Maggie knows.  Instead, we hear Sam say something to Maggie that the audience needs to know.  It is irritating (especially if you've watched all available 111 episodes up until this point), but it is within Sam's character.

The moral of the story is to make dialogue better, always make sure you know the motivation behind the speaker.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cultivating Ideas Through Research

I won't be talking about the fact I finished my fifth draft of The Rose and the Crown today. I'll talk about that in a future blog.

Instead, I'm going to talk about the importance of writing research and reading. I have several stories that I'm working on in one phase or another. Regardless of what project I'm working on, I'm always looking for ideas that can help develop my stories. I look for ideas everywhere. I've had ideas for improving stories come while running, while on my morning commute, and even from conversations overheard at a doctor's office. However, the best ideas I've come up with have come from conducting research or reading lots of books.

To provide you with an example, I'm reading The Kalevala. The Kalevala is the national epic poet of Finland as collected and written down by Elias Lönnrot. I'm not very far into the epic and I've already gotten a few great ideas for my “paranormal romance” project.

The story I'm still peculating in my head will involve a great deal of the supernatural, including numerous animal mythologies, alchemy, and magical enchantments. I've done a lot of research so far towards this world, many pieces I may never use. However, last night while reading The Kalevala, I came across this gem:

Who then took a bough

took eternal happiness

and who then broke off the top

broke off eternal magic;

who cut off a leafy twig

he cut off eternal love.

A few lines later we also have this:

She saw a sliver floating

gathered it into her bag

in the bag carried it home

in the long-strapped to the yard

to make her witch's arrows

her weapon of enchantment.

Both passages are talking about the destruction of a particular oak tree. These two passages, each six lines in length, give me a few ideas to file away. I have a bough that grants happiness, a top of this tree that grants eternal magic, a twig that grants eternal love, and slivers that can be used as enchantments for arrows. This gives me for potential plot items I could bring into the story. I might use all of them, or none of them. What matters is that in my arsenal of ideas, I now have Arrows of Kalevala that could be fired at my protagonist.

Options are an important part of the writing process. You need to be able to look at your story and determine what works best for the situation. It might not be the oak tree, but the oak tree is there for consideration. It logically follows that you need to spend time reading and researching to give yourself more options. A few hours at your local library in the reference section can give you hundreds of new ideas. I've done this a dozen times, just flipping through, reading and learning the names and stories of mythological creatures I've never been able to find online.

I know I talk about cliches a lot, but I wanted to point this out. Proper research can give you a way to avoid commonly used cliches. If I wanted my protagonist to be magically forced into falling in love with the antagonist, I could use the common cliche of a love potion. Alternatively, because of my research, I can have my antagonist walk up to the protagonist and whack him in the head with an oak twig. It adds a bit of comedy and takes at least one cliche out of the story.

No, I will not be having my protagonist forced into love with anyone else. That was just a hypothetical. You'll have to wait and read to see what evil plans I have in store with him.

Monday, January 9, 2012

2012 King of the Hill Movie Challenge

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Director: John Hughes

Writer: John Hughes

Staring: John Candy, Steve Martin

On a whim, I was flipping through the channels of the television and noticed that Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was coming on. I put the movie on and watched it again for the first time in over a decade. The movie has, surprisingly, aged well. Neal (Steve Martin) is trying to get home to Chicago and fate keeps him stuck with Del (John Candy) on the worst cross country adventure ever. The journey has them taking just above every form of transportation known to man.

The only movie I expect to be worse with cliches than a comedy flick, is a romantic comedy. Much to my surprise, this movie did a very good job of hiding them. Neal can't stand Del and slowly warms up to him. This cliche plays out across the entire movie. This is a useful trick to blending a cliche into the background. If you stretch it out and make it subtle enough, it isn't as offensive on the eyes. Another cliche that is a little less obvious is fate throwing every possible obstacle in their path. This was over played and became a heavy annoyance. The car really didn't have to catch on fire, did it?

I miss these style of comedies. Most comedies these days seem to involve the absurd circumstances or bathroom humor. Even Bridesmaids, a movie I adore, had a rather eye raising scene involving food poisoning. Unfortunately, John Candy, John Hughes (Director), and so many other wonderful minds and talents from the 1980's are dead. I can only hope for a resurgence of the humor style.


Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a well-written movie and great comedy. However, it has nothing on the imagery, action, and character development, and visuals of Hanna.

Winner: Hanna

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2012 King of the Hill Movie Challenge

During 2012, I'll be pitting the movies I watch against each other to determine the top movies of the year. Each month, I will compare every movie I watch to the defending champion. The top movie at the end of the month will be that month's pick of that month. At the end of the year, I'll be comparing the twelve movies together to determine my movie of the year.

So far, I've seen exactly one movie for the year. Hanna was a movie I wanted desperately to see in theaters but never got a chance to until now.


Director: Joe Wright

Writers: Seth Lochhead and David Farr

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, and Eric Bana

This movie sets a very, very high bar for January. I loved just about everything that this movie had to offer. The story follows a young girl, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) who has been raised by her father, Erik (Eric Bana) in the arctic tundra of Finland. Convinced that she is ready, Hanna is intentionally captured by CIA special forces so that she can get close to Marissa (Cate Blanchett) and assassinate her.

The movie is a hard movie to categorize. I can't truly call it an action flick, but it isn't drama either. It's refreshing to have a movie that defies categories. Notably, the movie has strong character development in Hanna, something I rarely see in the action genre. Another aspect of the movie that makes it impossible to call it an action flick is its use of imagery. The imagery is subtle, enough to hint upon your subconscious. The movie opens with Finland and a world of pure white and it is a significant amount of time before more than one or two colors become common place on the screen. This color shift is, clearly the imagery of Hanna's state of innocence. Additionally, the movie makes multiple references to fairy tales. At one particularly important scene, Hanna is confronted by Marissa who has just stepped out from the jaws of a wolf at an amusement park.

None of the above is to say that the movie is perfect. There are issues with this film. In Morocco, Hanna is on her own for the first time. She finds herself quickly overwhelmed by the many sounds in her room. The television, which had been on a piece of music seconds before is suddenly making war noises. The phone happens to ring at that moment. There are gunshots in the street. It was forced far too much and pulled me out of the story. Another issue with the movie, and this is a minor complain, is the languages presented in the film. The movie has five languages used in the film I could identify. The characters all speak English. German comes up in a few scenes. Arabic is used for one of the Morocco scenes. Italian and Spanish are both used once. Five languages, and they couldn't bother to use the native language for the country of the opening scene, Finland.

For those of you reading this who do not know me yet, I happen to love Finland. I was looking forward to watching a movie that might have a few scenes of characters speaking in a foreign language I know. This was disappointing.


With no movies to compare this to yet, Hanna is the top dog. Woe be to the next few movies that try and knock this movie off of the hill.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Second Cliche

For my second blog post, I'm going to take about cliches and the developed character. I won't go so far as to say well-developed characters; that would require a much more in-depth analysis. Cliches work better when the characters are developed. When a show or a piece of fiction has two-dimensional or underdeveloped characters, the cliches will stand out.

Before I can get into the interaction of a cliche with a developed character, I need to talk about what a cliche is. A cliche is a basic story concept that has been used so frequently that my eyes have started bleeding. It's easy to think of examples with little or no effort. Looking around my apartment, I can find lots of examples. Eureka, while a great show, uses the "smart geeky boy who can't talk to girls", the "protagonist in a land where everyone gets the world around him but him", and "father can't talk to his child" cliche. The DVD boxset of Jeeves & Wooster has the "the butler is smarter than who he works for" cliche. To demonstrate the common place of cliches, look at Terra Nova. The show is rife with examples of the same, "father can't talk to his child" cliche that is found in Eureka.

Side Note: If you want the official terms for these cliches, you are welcome to head over to TV Tropes. I must confess I don't browse the site very much.

The difference between the good use of a cliche and a bad can be attributed to many factors. For me, the biggest difference is character. A well-written character is going to pull the reader or viewer to the character's reaction and away from the formula being used. Sheriff Jack Carter and his daughter Zoe conflict with each other on a regular basis in Eureka. This, at the most basic level, is no different than Jim Shannon's conflict with his son Joshua on Terra Nova.

Zoe is a troublemaker with no direction. She's taken up a life of petty crime and her father has just hunted her down at the start of the show. Her issues stem from the parental situations in which her dad, a US Marshal, and her mom are divorced. Carter is embarrassed that, as a law enforcement agent, he's transporting his own daughter as a fugitive. In Terrible Nova, Jim and his family have violated a world's law limiting families to four. His family has five. Jim punches out an enforcement agent and is sent to jail for breaking the family count act. For some reason, this puts Josh at odds with his dad. This rationale is never explained well. In later episodes, Terrible Nova plays out the relationship between Josh and Jim. It makes things better, but the detachment from the show from the initial, obvious cliche use never fully healed.

Take my story from the last blog post. It wasn't particularly good. The characters were flat. In order to soften the effect that the cliches have on the story, I need to develop the characters more. I broke out Rory's Story Cubes and rolled the dice. I'm not making a full story this time, so cherry picked five dice to create a some ideas for character development. Here is the new draft of the story.

There was once a happy couple that lived in a house. Thomas had decided to do something special for Kelly to show his appreciation. After counting his pennies, he realized he didn't have enough to buy the set of dolls that Kelly had loved. Frustrated, he went out looking for a way to earn some extra money. He spoke with a neighbor and was able to make the rest of the money he needed by working in the neighbor's garden.
He gave Kelly the present that night. After spending a moment to ponder the package, Kelly unwrapped a pair of dolls. The night was suddenly interrupted by a dragon from out of town. It landed on the guard's tower and setup camp in the parapet. The appearance of the dragon created a bit of drama for the family. After a heated conversation with his wife, Thomas decided to go to investigate. From the top of the tower, he saw the dragon hanging out on a parapet below. Thomas took a giant ball and tried to drop it on the dragon's head. In retrospect, the act was a bit of a reach. The ball missed. He decided it had been a case of bad judgement to try and slay the dragon. He was upset, but after dancing a jig at home, he felt much better.

The story still has the same cliches. They are still obvious to the casual reader. Only now, Thomas is better developed. You can almost see why he might want to go out and defeat this dragon. He was, after all, having a special night at home when the dragon appeared. This development and motivation could make some readers see his character and focus more on him and his desire to show Kelly his appreciation. Unfortunately, this development is limited to one section of the text. It will take many rolls of the dice to fix this story up.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The First Cliche

I don't have the humor of the Bloggess. I don't have the artistic talent of Allie Brosch over on Hyperbole and a Half. I don't have the near-perfect grasp of the English language like my wife does over on Tales of an Intrepid Pantster. I'm not sure I have a claim to fame, but if I did, it is the ability to piece together unique stories either devoid of cliches or using them in a mostly harmless way.

I hate cliches. And while I might enjoy a story that takes a cliche and spins it in a different direction, the use of the cliche never leaves me completely satisfied. Overuse of cliches will result in a wall thumper at worst and my weekly mockery at best (I'm looking at you Terra Nova!). On the other hand, good cliche use gets my attention and works devoid of cliches get my praise.

I haven't decided the full direction of this blog. I know that I'll talk about writing, television, books, movies, my cats, my wife, Upstate New York, and subjects I probably shouldn't mention. I will regularly be deconstructing and constructing story elements. If you are a writer, I'm sure you'll get at least two pieces of advice for every piece of dredge I offer. If you like reading blogs, this is a blog. If you don't want to see your favorite shows ripped apart and insulted, you need to find new shows to watch. I'll definitely talk about cliches. Someone needs to declare war on the suckers.

I'm going to try and write an entry once a week. That's the closest thing you will get a promise. I'll also try and include random writing in each post. For day, I'm going to create a story using some dice I got for Christmas. It's from the game, Rory's Story Cubes. I have two sets. You roll the dice and put together a story based on the pictures you have. In future posts, I'll use these dice to talk about how I construct stories and work to avoid cliches. For now, I'm being lazy and just creating a random story and pointing out the cliches.

There was once a happy family living in a house. The night had been a peaceful so far. Thomas had just given Kelly a gift to open. After spending a moment to ponder the package, Kelly unwrapped a pair of dolls. The night was suddenly interrupted by a dragon from out of town. It landed on the guard's tower and setup camp in the parapet. The appearance of the dragon created a bit of drama for the family. After a heated conversation with his wife, Thomas decided to go to investigate. From the top of the tower, he saw the dragon hanging out on a parapet below. Thomas took a giant ball and tried to drop it on the dragon's head. In retrospect, the act was a bit of a reach. The ball missed. He decided it had been a case of bad judgement to try and slay the dragon. He was upset, but after dancing a jig at home, he felt much better.

The story, at its core is pretty dull and ripe full of cliches. Peaceful life is disrupted by an outside force that is given a monstrous appearance. Male decided to take his approach against the wishes of the female and tries to defeat the beast. Male makes an attempt to stop the beast and fails. I'm willing to bet you can take this plot summary and apply it to thousands of popular stories. I took a brief look at my bookshelf and only had to scan as far as my collection of Andrew Lang. That's the start for a large chunk of fairy tales.

The first step to dealing with cliches is to recognize them. The worse the writing, the more they stand out. Better writers paint the cliches in pretty colors to hide them. It is possible to water a cliche down until it is unrecognizable. However, if you don't know it's there, you can't water it down.

If you're curious, the story took approximately two minutes to write.