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Nothing grinds a writer like plot holes. Hell, I STILL can’t watch the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban without griping at the screen about the absent explanation of how Lupin understands the Marauders’ Map.
No writer tells a story with the intention of digging plot holes (one would hope, anyway). If a writer loves the craft enough, that writer will do their utmost to tell a complete story, avoiding intentional plot holes like Biff avoids broccoli.
The bugger comes when the story sprawls over the course of multiple installments. Now the writer doesn’t have to reveal everything before the end of Act III. Important reveals can be put off until Act VIII, or XI, or even XIV. After all, what else engages audiences like a good mystery?
You do not keep the audience’s interest by giving it information, but by withholding information, except that which is absolutely necessary for comprehension.
JJ Abrams has never been shy over sharing his love of mystery. To him, storytelling is all about The Mystery Box, as this excerpt from his 2007 TED Talk shows.
On this page, it would seem that Abrams and McKee agree. If one answers aaaaaaall the questions before the story’s even begun, why should readers care about the story? I can only imagine how readers would have felt if Rowling had wedged Voldemort’s backstory into the first book of the Harry Potter series instead of the sixth. Honestly, I know what I’d have done:
Glazed over it.
But after reading five books about this villain, seeing his various reincarnations and the consequences of his ambitions, I’m dying to know who this dark wizard is and what drives him. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has always felt like the least action-oriented book of the series, but readers are still okay with this because a degree of the mystery is being revealed to them. After the monumental battles in the fifth book, the series’ pacing allowed for a slow-down.
Regarding JJ Abrams and Star Wars, he likely felt comfortable building oodles of Mystery Boxes in The Force Awakens because he expected the later movies to open his boxes and reveal the answers. If we learned eeeeverything about the First Order, Rey, Luke Skywalker, etc in The Force Awakens, then we wouldn’t be curious to see what’s coming in the other films.
A certain amount of audience curiosity is essential. Without it, Narrative Drive grinds to a halt…. But you must not abuse this power. If so, the audience, in frustration, will tune out…. No dirty tricks, no Cheap Surprise, no False Mystery. False Mystery is a counterfeit curiosity caused by the artificial concealment of fact.
Over-telling too early causes people to forget what is important and be confused by what isn’t. Under-telling, however, can be just as dangerous, and on this, Abrams is VERY guilty. Let’s walk through a few plot holes in The Force Awakens and consider whether or not these “conceals” are necessary or artificial. For comparison’s sake, I’ll use two very different trilogies, one of blockbuster scale (Hunger Games), the other not (Southern Reach).
ONE: The Beginning
I already whinged enough about how The Force Awakens simply dictated the universe must have the same stakes as the Original Trilogy without showing how the heck this galaxy far, far away started the vicious cycle all over again. This information, however, didn’t have to come in The Force Awakens. The first Hunger Games book doesn’t dive too much into the world’s history; instead, we get this information in bits and pieces throughout the second and third books. For the films, this storytelling method worked pretty well, as the first film could focus strictly on Katniss’ preparation and battle for survival in The Hunger Games at hand. In Annihilation, we have no idea where Area X came from, let alone the backstory of nearly all the characters. It’s not until Acceptance, the final book of The Southern Reach trilogy, that we learn the true motivations of the antagonist from the first book as well as where Area X came from. Had all that information been dumped on readers in the first 100 pages, they’d be bogged down and ignoring what really was important, focused instead on whatever words relay the current protagonist’s plight.
So as far as these opening stakes go, Abrams, you get a small pass.
TWO: Pilot Poe’s Survival
As I described in Part 2, the character Finn, our Storm Trooper Turned Good, escapes the First Order with Rebel Pilot Poe. They crash the TIE fighter, and when Finn awakes, he finds himself alone with Poe’s jacket. The ship sinks in the sand, and as far as Finn knows, Poe’s died in the sand already. He says as much to the droid BB-8, and the story goes on, treating the pilot as lost…
…until he shows up at the Resistance base, healthy and whole.
How’d he survive the crash?
How’d he get off the planet without the First Order noticing? They were all over the place chasing down Finn, Rey, and BB-8.
And we never find out.
Now if Poe were a tertiary character, one with little presence in the story or impact on the overall plot, we could probably evade this plot hole without much trouble. Easy peasy–Poe woke up first and got away from the ship. He left his jacket because…well it doesn’t matter. He abandoned his new friend Finn because…well, it doesn’t matter. He got off the planet without looking for his droid BB-8 because…well, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he got back to the Resistance to fight another day.
That sure is a lot of “doesn’t matters” for one character’s choice, isn’t it? A character’s choice that, considering what little we do know of the character, doesn’t make sense. Poe’s the one who wanted to return to this desert planet to find his droid, and yet he vanishes from the story entirely to arrive just in time to wave happily to the droid that, by all accounts, he was determined to find. But we never see him try to find the droid, the sole motivation for his actions in the first half of the movie.
A “hole” is another way to lose credibility. Rather than a lack of motivation, now the story lacks logic, a missing link in the chain of cause and effect….Maybe the audience won’t notice. But maybe it will. Then what? Cowardly writers try to kick sand over such holes and hope the audience doesn’t notice. Other writers face this problem manfully. They expose the hole to the audience, then deny that it is a hole.
What frustrates a writer like m’self so much over a plot hole like this is that it would not have taken much to fill the hole. Abrams could have kept Poe out of the plot until Finn and Rey arrive at the Resistance base, sure. We could have seen him still recovering from the crash, demanding a ship to fly back for BB-8. We could have seen him on a communicator, checking in with ships on any signs of BB-8.
A character’s absence may be forgivable, but not the absence of motivation. When Katniss and Peeta are separated in the arena, we find out later on what Peeta was doing, and his physical/emotional state show proof of this. When the psychologist separates from the biologist, we don’t know what she’s up to. The biologist shoots her at the end of Annihilation, so we’re left to assume the psychologist was up to something nefarious. It’s at the end of Acceptance that we at last fully understand the psychologist’s motivations–and what the hell she was doing at the lighthouse in the moments before the biologist shoots her.
If Poe needed to be removed from the film to give time for Rey and Finn, then so be it. But that didn’t mean Poe’s arc gets to be fast-forwarded to where it’s convenient. He needed to be off-screen following through on his motivation so that when he’s back on screen, he looks like he was off-screen for a reason.
So as far as Poe goes, Abrams, that ship don’t fly.
THREE: Talking Lightsabers That Just So Happen To Be In A Mysterious Box In A Tavern’s Basement
This is the point where I audibly said “Bullshit” in the theater.
Finn, Rey, and BB-8 travel with Han Solo and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon to some ancient looking planet’s cantina, where the owner Maz Kanata provides sage advice. While Maz and Han talk, Rey hears something and goes under the cantina into a big storage area, where a faint voice calls from a box. She opens the box to discover what the audience immediate recognizes as Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Maz finds Rey and tells her about the force, but Rey refuses the lightsaber and runs off. So, Maz brings the lightsaber to Han.
“A good question, for another time.”
…coincidence is a part of life, often a powerful part, rocking existence, then vanishing as absurdly as it arrived. The solution, therefore, is not to avoid coincidence, but to dramatize how it may enter life meaninglessly, but in time gain meaning, how the antilogic of randomness becomes the logic of life-as-lived.
When used well, coincidences help tie together plot elements and propel the narrative along. In the first Hunger Games, for instance, it’s a pretty big coincidence that the other candidate chosen to fight for Katniss’ district has also been crushing on her for years. In Authority, the second book of The Southern Reach Trilogy, the new director stumbles upon the psychologist’s old phone and, thinking it might hold useful data, takes it home. This just so happens to be the same phone the psychologist had taken into Area X on a secret expedition, so of course, that phone has changed into something else…a something that is now skulking around the new director’s home.
On Rey’s desert planet Jakku, there just so happens to be a seller of parts scavenged from other ships, and this seller just so happens to keep some junk ships…like the Millennium Falcon.
While I have a hard time imagining Solo losing his ship, I can accept it being considered garbage; after all, in A New Hope Luke takes one look at the Falcon and says, “What a piece of junk!” So that a scavenger has allocated the Falcon on the planet where Rey just so happens to live is an acceptable coincidence.
That Han Solo just so happens to fly Rey to a cantina where a sage-like character just so happens to have a vault with a box that just so happens to have Luke’s lightsaber that just so happens to connect with Rey…
That is not acceptable.
Had Maz mentioned living in Cloud City (where Luke had lost the lightsaber in his duel with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back), okay. Weird, but okay. At least there’s some sort of intent, a trail of motivation: Force-sensitive Maz discovers the lightsaber and feels its importance, so she keeps it safe until finding its owner. Or Lando’s team recovers it and gives it to Han, who entrusts it to Maz for whatever reason. Heck, in Rey’s vision of the Jedi temple burning and Luke crouched low by R2-D2, Maz could have been there ready to give him the lightsaber, but upon seeing the Knights of Ren hides instead.
Instead, we have none of these things. We have only the Mystery Box, and “another time.”
And maybe Abrams did intend to explain this Mystery Box another time. There were two more movies, after all, and he had notes for the other directors to help keep the storyline unified across the trilogy.
Only The Powers That Be in Disney and Lucasfilm didn’t see the importance of paying off those expectations. They had their own agendas, agendas that would take the galaxy far, far away into a new cosmos:
Political and social commentary.
Disney wanted a Star Wars trilogy that would inspire new and old generations alike to buy millions of movie tickets, toys, and theme park passes. Creating a story befitting the lStar Wars universe was never the top priority, not for them. Was JJ Abrams passionate about this project? Let’s just say yes. But loving a story-world and its characters is not the same as creating in that world. Abrams selected bits of the Original Trilogy he wanted to share in his own way; some of it worked, and some of it didn’t. The plot’s true shortcomings, though, can be summed up in two words:
Too often we are wondering how X happened, or why Z did ___. It’s one thing to have a mysterious villain, or an unknown backstory. But when a writer takes time to establish a character’s motivations only to ignore them until the plot makes it convenient for the motivations to come back, or a writer ignores the older characters’ stories so the plot’s MacGuffin can move to the newer characters, then there are serious problems afoot.
And we haven’t even TOUCHED the flippin’ Death Star 3.0 yet.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
More student assignments are coming my way in a few days, so I think we’ll have a lovely author interview next week. After that, we’ll wrap up The Force Awakens with a discussion of what makes a great villain…and why it’s unwise to go the safe route.
Good morning, all, from a wintry Wisconsin! At long last, snow’s found my corner of the Midwest. Biff, Bash, and Blondie had a blast sledding upon our wee hill. It’s the sort of blizzardy day that encourages one to tuck into a blanket and a book–not that I can, with my pile of student projects requiring grades and the kids now planning to convert the house into one giant Gotham City/Sodor hybrid because I was fool enough to leave those old toys out. Still, isn’t it a lovely thought to just wile away the day with a cozy mystery? Or, perhaps an epic adventure into the Elsewhere…
Dark Crystalis a film I’ve only watched a handful of times, and yet I can still remember the awe of my first encounter. Everything glowed, moved, lived. I knew these were puppets, and yet they felt real to me, so real that their torture under the Skeksis scared the pants off of me. Heck, I still have the occasional nightmare about that chair.
Dark Crystal is also one of the few creations by Jim Henson Disney doesn’t own, which is why Netflix was able to produce its own prequel series. I’ll be the first to admit I was skeptical, but the music alone has won me over.
To the lovers of fantasy, the lovers of adventure: here is a theme to call you over that threshold for a hero’s journey.
Oh, Daniel Pemberton, you do not disappoint. The mix of zither and medieval instruments atop a foundation of strings inspire the feeling of a dirt track beneath leather boots, of dusty wind whipping rain-washed hair. We close our eyes to a sun first rising over old forests and older mountains, the road lost in a valley of thorns and uncertainty.
I’m such a sucker for the medieval flair in this score. The feel of history, I think, and the simplicity in its emotional expression.
The score to Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance doesn’t just count on the medieval flavor, however. The moments of synthesized melodies seems to hearken back to the 80s while also remaining distinctly…distinctly itself. “Unnatural” would be my description, an antithesis for the skin drumheads and soft flutes of before. The result unsettles the imagination, cracking it as a clawed foot cracks the ice.
When winter turns our real world bleak with cold, music like Pemberton’s reminds us there’s magic both frightening and fragile beyond the snow. We’ve only to turn our writing eyes inward, and watch music awaken Story’s Landscape.
That, and there’s nothing quite so lovely as a fluttering solo violin. 🙂
Someday, I hope to see the story actually paired with Pemberton’s music (Yes, I’m one of thooose people who has no streaming service of any kind.) Until then, I’m thrilled Pemberton’s found a way to bring the music of Henson’s original story together with his own, just as the writers of Age of Resistance found a way to create a new story in Henson’s universe.
May your own stories, whether unique to you or inspired by others, contain such magic as to enchant your readers and leave them breathless in a land of hope and shadows.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
I’m keen to get back into my Star Wars series by studying some plot holes in The Force Awakens and how those holes affect the strength of the trilogy overall. I’ve also got some FANTASTIC interviews lined up, with the first to be posted in the next few weeks. Blondie’s also been pestering me to write on here, too, so you may be hearing from her soon. xxxxxx
But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.
Robert Mckee, Story
It’s an opening as known as Once upon a time.It’s the sort of opening to calls upon readers to leave the reality they know and enter a story both of the future and of the past—a hero’s journey, a villain’s redemption, a coming of age, a coming together of hearts, of friends…
The dialogue over Disney’s contributions to the Star Wars universe has been….well, a pretty shitty one. We’ve reached the point where Star Wars fans are like the Yooks and Zooks of Dr. Seuss’ The Great Butter Battle, and if you know that story, you know it doesn’t end well for anyone.
So let’s just put aside our Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroos for a second, lean against the wall à la Charlie Brown–
–and talk like storytellers. Not as rabid fans, or haters, or menaces, or warriors. Just people who love crafting good stories as much as they love experiencing them. And what better way to focus on the craft than by utilizing wisdom from one of the most revered voices in storytelling?
Robert McKee has been a revered voice in Hollywood for decades, as he’s taught notable storytellers like Peter Jackson,Paul Haggis, and William Goldman. His book Story is one of the few texts I’ve kept from my hellish graduate school days, as it utilizes films from several different genres to show how smart writing with character development, tension, and scene structure can build a powerful story with which audiences can connect.
It is with McKee’s craft lessons in Story I’d like to discuss the flaws that plague Episodes VII, VIII, and IX of the Star Wars saga. As storytellers, I think we can all agree on some pretty important things are necessary to make a strong story, and therefore understand certain choices that both JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson made with their installments. To be clear,I’m not going to bash either director. On the contrary, I think both brought some positive elements to Star Wars that shouldn’t be dismissed just because you don’t agree with all of their other creative choices.
No, the flaw lies in the foundation of the sequel trilogy. Like the parable of the foolish man who builds his house upon the sand, the recent Star Wars trilogy was built without a solid foundation. In other words, the creative powers of Disney failed to do the necessary worldbuilding—galaxy-building, if you will—for the stakes of the new trilogy to appeal to audiences old or new.
In this blog series, I’m going to utilize McKee’s words on story craft to break down where the sequel trilogy’s potential shines as well as where it dims. Every film has its moments, so I’m not going to dwell for a thousand words on one and then just rush through another.
And the truly tragic part? This could have aaaaaaall been avoided had Disney stuck with what it already built.
Story is about originality, not duplication.
Robert McKee, Story
Disney purchased Lucasfilm and rights to Star Wars in 2012, and by 2014 had created its own original storyline in the Star Wars Universe. The story was set between the prequels and original trilogy, a time when the Empire are hunting down any surviving Jedi and the Rebellion is slowly beginning to form.
Star Wars: Rebels ran for just four seasons, but in that time gained a solid following of fans, a good merchandise line, and even splinter stories in books and comics. The cast was a mix of alien and human-like folks, male and female, adults and kids, each with unique talents that came together to create a strong team to deal with a vicious gallery of Imperial foes.
The storyline fit snugly in the between the established trilogies without disturbing any of the arcs of previously established characters in the Skywalker episodes. Audiences were happy to go on adventures with the scrappy kid, laugh at the cranky droid, marvel at the piloting smarts of the lady alien, feel for the Jedi mourning the loss of his brethren…
…in other words, Disney had successfully built a solid setting in this galaxy far, far away that was unique while also adhering to the state of this galaxy as Revenge of the Sith left it.
Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.
Robert McKee, Story
You’d think that for a studio that loves making live-action remakes of their animated properties, bringing a live-action adaptation of Rebels to film would have been the easy-peasy choice for their feature debut with the Star Wars franchise. They had fans happy with the show, they had storylines all written out ready to go, characters fun and fleshed out. All the hard work of worldbuilding, character development, and plotting was already done.
But perhaps, to those Disney Powers That Be, this was the problem.
Ezra the kid wasn’t like Luke enough.
Hera the pilot wasn’t like Leia enough.
Kanan the Jedi wasn’t like Kenobi enough.
The Inquisitor wasn’t not like Vader enough.
Rebels wasn’t enough like Star Wars’ original trilogy, a film series loved by millions across multiple generations. Rebels’ own successes just weren’t enough.
Disney was determined to repeat the cosmic success of the 70s and 80s, and decided the best way to do this was by treating those original films as a formula to follow.
This choice, right here, before ANY director could say “Action!”, marks the beginning of the troubles for Disney’s Star Wars films. Had they begun with a feature film cast with their own characters and followed previously tested storylines, they would have planted the seeds of goodwill among audiences while also learning the ins and outs of producing a sci-fi adventure epic that is a Star Wars film.
Instead, they chose to fly as close to A New Hope as possible. Too close, as we shall see.
~STAY TUNED NEXT TIME!~
Oh, I’m keen to do some analysis of the entire sequel trilogy, so you’re stuck with me on this topic for a little while. 🙂 But I’ll also throw in some AMAZING music by Daniel Pemberton I got for Christmas, plus there’s some swanky author interviews coming, too.
…just in time for our Christmas church service, no less! At least Blondie’s ready and raring to recite Luke 2 and sing oodles of carols.
But enough whinging over fevers.
Firstly, I wanted to thank you for supporting me through what’s been a very bumpy year. My publisher discontinued my series, which meant I had to pull my free short stories Tales of the River Vine and overhaul my platform. You held me up when I felt like the game was over, and you encouraged me to write on and fight on.
So I did, and got a novella published in the process.
It seems so bloody easy to walk away. To give up the battle because the world says we’re just not good enough. I’ve seen these faces of defeat in many classrooms over the past few months: eight-year-olds who still cannot connect letters to sounds. Twelve-year-olds who’d rather throw books than read them out loud. Eighteen-year-olds who’ve never learned to use an index, let alone critically dissect a few textbook paragraphs. And the teachers? The teachers will move them onward and outward whether the students are ready or not.
We live in illiterate times, my friends. You may know proficiency rates are low where you live, but do you know how low? I learned last week that in the public schools of Wisconsin’s capital, only 36.6% tested proficient in reading.
Think about that for a second.
Only three in ten can read at grade level. And that’s just the basic stuff without all the critical thinking skills to go with it. These kids are graduating high school without the skills to read literature appropriate to any profession, let alone write a resumé. They’re simply dumped into the workforce and expected to survive.
Not for lack of trying, mind. Teachers in Madison, Wisconsin, and anywhere are in a terrible place. When I see what they’re up against, I can’t help but think of World War 1: embedded in trenches dug by faulty philosophy, living with almost no resources, struggling through the barbed wire that is parental criticism with little support from administration, their very livelihood determined by the results of tests created without their input.
This Christmas, let’s tell our kids stories by the light of the Christmas tree. Let’s enchant them, spook them, tickle them. Let’s engage them with characters and places realer than real. Whether it’s a story about Christmas or a story to love all year long, it is time to give the sweet gift of story…with cookies. Never forget the cookies!
From our sniffly house to yours, may you have a most blessed Christmas and an adventurous new year!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
It’s so exciting to see my author interviews fill up for 2020! I can’t wait to share these wonderful writers with you. I also got an early Christmas present of music I MUST share with you next month. First, however, we need to discuss a serious writer’s problem, one which has gotten lots, and lots, and LOTS of press lately.
Oh yes. Next week, we are going to a galaxy far, far away to discuss what went wrong with Disney’s sequel trilogy…and no, I’m not just going to bash Rian Johnson and/or JJ Abrams for a thousand words.
National Novel Writing Month called to my imagination with the promise of storytelling in spite of all life’s commitments. Thousands take up the challenge, so why can’t I? And I was realistic about this, too. I knew 50,000 words was impossible, but surely there could be SOME way to accomplish a meaningful amount of words. I’ve done it before, and dammit, I could do it again!
But if you saw my banner for November, you might already know what changed the course of my plans.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the motherhood. I managed to turn Biff’s day of fever into a quick morning of writing.
No no–it was the teaching. Yeah, the final projects from my University students were once again a big drain on time, but those at least I knew how to manage. The subbing among six different school districts, however, was constantly unpredictable. A small agreement of a three-hour stint would change into a six-hour haul among several different grades. I’d show up expecting to work with a special needs kid only to find out I’m actually teaching 1st grade math to kids more eager to stab each other in the eye with pencils than to just sit the Godfrey Daniel down. (You can decipher that bold phrase if you channel your inner WC Fields.) This doesn’t even include the 5am phone calls of, “Can you come in today? All day. There are notes here for your duties, I think. We’ll look when you get here.”
It was a busy month. Busy, and rough. I’d be rushing from hours spent with a kid who refused to use kleenex and therefore had a steady stream of mucus running from his nose into his mouth while eating his snack and then coming up to hug every single adult and myself and to give us high fives with those same boogery hands and I had to prevent myself from gagging all over this kid OLD ENOUGH TO USE A FRICKETY FRACKIN’ TISSUE and then get my own kids, NOT let them hug me so I wouldn’t spread whatever germs are smeared in green on my person, and grade finals.
And the typical bits of motherhood don’t vanish,do they? Blondie needed to work on her piano. Biff and Bash needed to do their homework, and they needed to attend their occupational therapy. All three needed to be fed with actual food, not just, you know, dog bowls on the floor. (Though that would be SOOOO much easier.)
At the beginning of November, I was certain I could use the same tactics I had in previous years to write while parenting and teaching. And if my life’s course was still just motherhood and teaching online for the university. it could have worked.
But this fall, the course of my life changed when I added the substitute jobs. The river no longer flowed in the way I understood it. It went from this…
I missed writing so much.
I wanted life to continue its typical course with my writing floating atop. I might row for ten miles one day, just around the bend the next. But at least I’d be writing again.
Yet at least two weeks of November passed with no writing at all.
I had failed.
“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”
That failure hung on me like twin boys determined to make me a tree. It hung on me like the face my daughter used to make when I’d say time and time again, “Not now.” It hung on me like the words my husband couldn’t say because I had to work. I had to do more. There was always more to do.
And that, Dear Friends, is when it’s time to stop.
You may think you can walk upon the river’s stones. You may think you can continue on your course your way because you are you.
That’s what I thought. I put on my sensible shoes and figured I could portage my writing across the rapids without *too* much trouble.
I was so bloody determined to carry my writing through these unpredictable waters that I failed to look on what I had done as any sort of accomplishment.
I had written 12,000 words of a new story and shared share every one of those words with you.
It’s so easy to get caught up in what we fail to do, isn’t it? We get daily notifications of a gazillion new authors all hot’n’fancy with readers we’d LOVE to have for ourselves. We check out the new best-seller brew-ha-ha and wonder what on EARTH inspires people to spend money on such’n’such garbage when there’s *our* stuff ready and waiting. We hear of yet another remake/re-imagining/reboot/re-whatever and wonder why no one notices the bounty of fresh fiction we create.
We look so longingly at the accomplishments of others that we forget what we ourselves have accomplished. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did work to help keep Blondie in music and Biff and Bash with their therapy. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did inspire my daughter to start her own. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did get to split my sides laughing while Biff and Bash shared their favorite quotes from a Captain Underpants read-a-thon (Seriously, Biff sat and read an entire novel out loud with Bash silently listening. It was AMAZING.)
So Friends, please don’t dwell on what wasn’t finished. There will always be a course to travel, and it will always be a mystery beyond the bend. What matters is that you take a step, then another, then another. One day you may take one hundred steps, the next one thousand, the next, just one. Every single step–every single word–is something to be proud of.
~Stay Tuned Next Week!~
I’m going to start posting on Sundays instead of Thursdays, so now you have to wait until next Sunday for some awesome writing music, updates from Blondie, and perhaps some writing craft study on an old holiday favorite. More author interviews are underway as well, so be sure to stop by and see who’s on the hot-seat in the coming weeks!
However, as book reviewer and author S.J. Higbeehas often noted, many authors and/or publishers feel compelled to stick waaaaaaaaaaaay too much information into the book blurb. (Click here for just one of MANY reviews where Sarah touches on the problem of chatty blurbs.) Where is the line between too much information and too little? We want to give readers a taste of the story inside, but we don’t want to ruin their appetites. We want to engage readers without killing all the story’s surprises or subverting all the expectations.
Which got me to thinking about M*A*S*H. Yes, the TV show.
I never watched M*A*S*H as a kid, nor did I know about the original book on which the film and television series are based. I only knew that whenever the theme song started playing on the TV, I went off and did something else.
Just listen to that mellow song played alongside these doctors and nurses treating soldiers near enemy lines. The show’s opener had the look and feel of some medical drama, the last sort of show Little Me would want to watch.
Then I learned after marrying Bo that this show was a comedy. A COMEDY?! How the heck is someone supposed to catch the comedy vibes from that opener? The melody’s a sad one; heck, the original song’s called “Suicide is Painless.” We see no happy or positive expressions on people’s faces, only the urgency of aiding the wounded. There is absolutely nothing present in this theme to tell one that they’re about to watch a comedy. Imagine if a book tried to pull this same stunt with their cover art and blurb. How do you think the ever-watchful Goodreads community would respond?
As writers, we need that blurb to give readers a genuine sense of the story-world they’re about to enter. Usually just a few elements of the genre are enough to tell readers, this is what you’re in for. If you dig X, then you’ll love this.
Since television themes are always held to a similar degree of requirement (unless it’s M*A*S*H, apparently), let’s use a few more for examples: Bonanza, Twilight Zone, and Dragnet.
Not one of these theme songs is all that long, but we get enough out of the music to know the genre of each show: the twang of the western guitar, the dissonance of an eerie suspense-filled horror, the stalwart drums of justice. With just a few seconds, these themes accurately and concisely provide the audience a sense of the stories that will accompany the themes.
Now I’m not saying that chattiness is always bad. Heavens, Rod Serling’s speech for Twilight Zone’s theme is iconic. Then you have shows like Dukes of Hazzard and A-Team, which just so happen to be Bo’s and my favorite TV shows from childhood. Both are spot-on with their carefree guitar and military snare, and both directly address the audience with the premise of the show (only the A-Team don’t need no Waylon Jennings to sing because they got Mr. T, fool!). These themes are slightly over a minute long, but they don’t overwhelm the audience with information. We only get what we need: Protagonists and Problems. It’s up to us to stay tuned for more.
So what happens when that blurb of a theme does give us more?
This is where I think we enter the “chatty” territory, the “too much” territory. Allow me to force more of my 80s upbringing on you for examples.
Okay, I’ll let the monotonous “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sung over and over in the background slide because it’s like a companion to the drums. But do we really need to hear the traits of every main character in the opening of EVERY episode? She-Ra and Masters of the Universe did that, too, always breaking down every damn character so you would know just who the good guys and bad guys are, and who knows the secret identity stuff and who doesn’t, because apparently you, you snot-faced lump of Cheetos-dusted child, are too dumb to catch on to any of this when watching the show.
And I think this is what really gets to me about those chatty blurbs on books today. It’s like the publisher/writer thinks they have to talk down to the reader to ensure they understand the story’s premise and conflict. Sure, no one wants the reader to feel confused, but the consequence of over-talking is that we make the reader feel inferior.
Yes, there are some that like having all the dots connected for them, but not this gal, not this gal’s kids, and I have a feeling that you don’t dig being babied, either. Plus, it says something about us as writers when we don’t trust our own storytelling skills to adequately show readers who’s who and what’s what inside the story itself.
There simply comes a time when all we can–all we should–give readers are duct tape, a lemon, and a broken magnifying glass. If they’re intrigued with the few pieces you leave for them to find, then you can bet your MacGyver-lovin’ boots they’re comin’ into the book for more.
Anyone else have a favorite television theme to share? I was trying to figure out how to squeeze in Hawaii Five-0, but I just couldn’t make it work, dammit.
Greetings, lovely readers! An unexpected flood of school work’s swamped my desk, and there’s a threat of storms severe enough to send animals hunting for an Ark. While I float upon the course prep and stare at our sump pump for the next 36 hours, please welcome the amazing indie author and filmmaker Mansu Edwards!
You are a creator in many forms: I love seeing how you weave in and out of genres like science fiction, young adult, and suspense. Do you feel the genre definitions in today’s market limit writers or help them?
Thank you Jean. I never focused on genre definitions. I use my instincts. I think Writers should create their own definitions. Genre definitions can limit Writers because it can prevent the Creator from producing a unique story. Readers don’t care about definitions. They care about good storytelling. Then again, not having a specific genre definition can hurt Author sales. People want to know what their reading and won’t spend money on surprises. However, there have been many instances where my story didn’t fit a specific genre or the genre didn’t reveal itself until midway in the story.
Your bio also mentions you recently created a short film, Texting in New York City. What challenges did you face as a storytelling in a visual medium? Does your experience as a filmmaker help inform your craft choices as a writer?
Texting In New York City is based on my book under the same name. The book consisted of random text conversations between New Yorkers. When creating the short film, I developed an idea and wrote a script. I understood the significance of brevity and pacing in film due to my Screenwriting background. I showed the 1st draft to an Exhibitor at a Trade Show. She explained the parts of the story that were unclear. I rewrote it and began hiring actors, actresses and a production team. The cinematographer, John Morgan pitched a couple of ideas; I watched a ton of short films and a popular webseries: Money And Violence to improve pacing and storytelling. The series made me retool the script. I eliminated and shortened certain scenes. It was a huge mental shift working on the visual version of Texting In New York City because I normally work alone when writing a book. Of course, I outsource certain parts of the process. Since, I have a Screenwriter’s mindset, I do my best to get to the point as quickly as possible. I don’t want to lose my audience.
You’ve been publishing works since 2009. With ten years of experience as an author, what would you say is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and how can we as the writing community overcome it?
Unscrupulous companies charging writers exorbitant fees to produce a book. I think its unnecessary and a terrible experience for novice authors. We can overcome it by offering writers a discount or providing advertisement for a reduced cost.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Yes, I read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. It interweaves the present and the past between two lovers. How their personal strengths and weaknesses affect their relationship. Also, the importance of making the correct decisions in life.
Let’s talk about your YA series, Emojis vs. Punctuation Marks. What a great concept of a story to share with young adult readers—especially those who forget punctuation even exists! (I teach writing, so I notice this problem. A LOT.) What first inspired you to write this series?
Thank you Jean. The Most High (God) inspired me. I’m sitting at the counter and an idea flashes in my mind. I hear the title Emojis Vs. Punctuation Marks: Battle Of The Keyboard . I’m thinking this is a cool and unusual concept. Also, I noticed the change in online communication over the years. Senders and receivers using Emoticons to express feelings and emotions. And the story sounded fun, so I knew I had to write it.
Book 2 of the series, Land of Refrigeration, expands the universe of these wee characters to include insects and produce. I would love to hear you breakdown the worldbuilding process you went through to create this new level of the EPM universe!
I had an incomplete version of Emojis Vs. Punctuation Marks: Land Of Refrigeration. I decided to have the Emojis battle the fruits and vegetables for territorial positioning while trying to find a way back to their unique world. I rewrote the story a few times. I wanted to show the survivors of Emojis Vs. Punctuation Marks: Battle Of The Keyboard attempting to adjust on Planet Earth. But, their ultimate goal is to return to their digital world. Also, I provided a backstory on the relationship between the Punctuation Marks and Danna’s father, Menelik which began during his adolescent years. Then, I began reread another story I wrote, but didn’t quite finish. It was completely different concept. The story didn’t have a title. I decided to incorporate it with the Emojis story. The tale takes place in Outer Space. So, I thought why not have the Insect, Centipede McGhee design a portal for the Emojis and Punctuation Marks to travel to a exciting, unfamiliar, digital world.
Where do you see the third entry of this series taking you—and readers? Any other projects you’d like to highlight for us?
Very good question. The third entry is a work in progress. I may change the story’s trajectory. I haven’t decided yet. Nevertheless, I have a new Ebook entitled Plush Couches. It’s about a young man who has a serious gas attack on his way to a job interview. I’m currently working on an untitled piece about a Superhero.
Lastly, please expand upon the age-old storyteller conundrum: Does writing energize or exhaust you, and why?
Writing is both energizing and exhausting. It uses mental, emotional and spiritual faculties. It’s a relationship that has its ups and downs. You never know what to expect. Sometimes your pen is sailing on calm seas and other times it’s swimming in turbulent waters. It’s a gift from God. People’s positive responses to my story energizes me. Of course, all the responses aren’t positive, but, I can’t let it demotivate me. I write the story. Finish it. Then work on the next book.
Thank you so much for your time and thoughts, Mansu! Godspeed to you on your upcoming writing adventures.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
Would you believe there’s an important lesson to be learned in TV theme songs? Yes, I’m serious. Then we’re going to ponder the structure of the fairy tale and how it can help add a darkly magical chapter to a story-world’s history.
Happy Thursday, everyone! I’m please to introduce you to J.D. Stanley. He’s an award-winning fantasy writer of novel and script as well as a Bardic Druid of the OBOD. It’s an honor to share his thoughts with you today on this, the writing life.
First, let’s talk a little about your background. I see you’ve done some work on radio and studio engineering. That’s so neat! It reminds me of Celine Kiernan, who spent years as an animator for Don Bluth before beginning her own writing career. How would you say your time with language-aloud influences your language-written?
It really was a neat experience. What a blast for a day job! Studio engineering and writing were the reasons I went into radio broadcasting in 1986. For a creative, nerdy introvert, all the behind-the-scenes stuff was super appealing. Audio engineering is a singular, unique avenue of creation – all you have are the sounds to build a world. I still love it. Without solid writing, though, no matter how good the production, it won’t sound realistic. Writing for that still makes me hyper-critical of my dialogue and narration today.
When I studied Radio in college, there was
a great deal of focus on learning to write words meant to be spoken – so
commercial copy, radio plays and show scripts. And the flip-side, how to speak
that writing, too. The point was, to craft something that didn’t sound scripted
even when it was. I was lucky enough to get picked up by a program director who
heard some of my freelance work and jobbed-out halfway through. Getting thrown into
the deep end like that really hammered it home. Knowing listeners would hear my
writing live shortly after I put the words down or a sponsor would pay more
than tens of thousands of dollars as soon as I produced or voiced a spot was…
terrifying. Nothing like having your feet to the fire to hone skills. Those lessons
will never leave me and my continued voiceover work as well as coaching written
and spoken communication keeps it fresh in my head.
I would say, all that time with language-aloud
makes me remember to read my writing outloud to check with my ears for
believability. The human ear is extremely sensitive to the naturalness of
speech, the nuance of humans speaking, and it strikes you when it’s fake. In my
opinion, it’s the best gauge a writer can use to check not only the flow, but
human believability of what’s written. I think it can help us make better
connections with our readers. If we can reach them as another human, be
accepted as a companion on a journey with them, we can connect. And when we can
connect, then what we write can mean something to them. But if we sound like
their Lit teacher? Dude, that’s just not gonna happen.
I once attempted a bit of screenplay writing some time ago, and…okay, not going to lie. I stunk at it. What challenges do you feel are unique to screenwriting as opposed to novel writing? What advantages? Do you have a preference between the two?
I really don’t have a burning desire to write screenplays daily and do prefer novel writing. I actually prefer fixing other people’s work, being a script doctor, over writing them if I’m being totally honest. I enjoy helping other people’s words work better. A script doctor gets no credit and most people don’t even know that’s a job.
There’s a specific pattern to the storytelling
in screenplays aspiring screenwriters need to learn. If you want to be a rebel
and not do it that way, that’s cool. But understand, that may be the reason
you’re not selling anything. It may be an interesting concept, for instance, so
someone takes a peak. And then they’re judged on a single page where there’s
supposed to be a predictable beat and it’s missing, so their work gets
round-filed. Or they don’t know the first thing about proper format and think
their story is so extraordinary everyone will look past that and give them gobs
of money anyway. Or they can’t write a logline to save their life, so no one ever
goes past the logline to read the script. Or they’re actually bad writers operating
under the delusion it doesn’t take good writing skills to write a screenplay.
I’d tell anyone thinking that screenwriting
is a cool career choice… First? Understand the chances of selling one are slim
to none. Once you get over that, you can move on. Practice the shit out of your
writing and, especially, educate yourself from film industry professionals. Study
books like Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, read their blogs and absorb a
crap-tonne of successfully produced screenplays – there’s a million available
online – so you can see what it takes. And forget all those no-name Internet
screenwriting contests held by genre enthusiasts who aren’t writers and don’t
know what goes into a decent script. Sure, you’ll get something to put in your
credits. But winning a contest not hosted by industry professionals isn’t
validation of your talent as a screenwriter. If you thought it was? That’s
probably why you aren’t selling any scripts after the contest is over. Pick
contests held by actual screenwriters, directors and producers. They know what
they’re looking at. And a lot of them include feedback in reply for free even
if you don’t place. They’ll be harsh, you’ll hate everything they tell you and will
probably make you cry, BUT they’ll tell you exactly what to do to your script
to turn it into a saleable product. Use them as your university.
You’ve quite a rich variety of favorite authors shared on your website. Do you think you can pinpoint which author and story first sparked the passion for storytelling inside you, and why you think it was that story more than any other?
No, I can’t say there was any single author or story that sparked it for me. I could read and write before I started kindergarten, so was a bit ahead in that area and when I started writing my stories down consistently from when I was about nine, I hadn’t read any of those authors yet. My first love was sci-fi and that’s where I started writing, so maybe Gene Roddenberry was probably my earliest influence? I grew up on Star Trek in the ’60s, though didn’t know him as a writer at the time.
When I was about twelve, I’d read
everything I was allowed by that point and got special permission from the
local library to have an adult library card, so I could read more books. Real
books. Normally, you had to be eighteen to have one of those puppies. Then I
read everything in the adult fiction section. And all the poetry books. And
then went through all the reference books. You want to know the depths of my
nerdiness? I do, in fact, still relish the secret thrill of reading
encyclopaedias and the dictionary for fun. Not even kidding. Back then, I read
so fast, I started at one end of the adult section and used to take out thirty
books at a time. Just clear them off the shelf all in a row, any genre, any
author, and bring them home. I read one a day, sometimes two, and read every book
from one end of the library to the other. Hence the massive list of authors.
Sad as it is, I couldn’t even tell you who the rest of those fiction authors were, but I remember the stories. When I was thirteen, I read the John Jakes saga The Kent Family Chronicles and I think I can say around there was when I realised I had an affinity for historical stories. And then after ingesting more books, I fine-tuned that down to historical fantasy for what I most often prefer to write. Reading for pleasure, though? Just about every genre as long as the story is good. I wish there were more gunslinger books. What an under-represented genre.
Out of that ocean of stories, three will resonate with me until I’m dead – Robin Hood, The ThreeMusketeers and Don Quixote. And overarching all of them is The Crystal Caveby Mary Stewart and all Arthurian legend. I’m a total junky. And, of course, Lord of the Rings. Definitely a common theme. I’d like to think that says something about my character, but probably more what I would hope to aspire to and will never achieve. I think I was born in the wrong century. New things, like technology and science, fascinate the hell out of me and I continue to love sci-fi. But old things and old centuries make me feel at home.
If I understand your writing process correctly, I get the impression you’re something of a “pantser”—one who doesn’t plan out a story, but runs with the story as it comes. How on earth do you balance the madcap writing this method requires while also having kids? I got three, and there’s no way in Hades I can focus on my own story when they’re crashing Transformers and Enterprises into the land of Care-A-Lot.
Well, nowadays, my four kids aren’t little, so I’m at a different stage. Though every stage comes with its own unique challenges. I also no longer drive due to my cataract, so have built-in writing time while commuting everywhere which I use to my advantage.
The ability of life to persistently work to steal our focus never ends, though. I just got the kids all self-sufficient and almost out of the house (two down, two to go!), but now have different roadblocks. My dad has declining dementia from a brain injury sustained from a fall, so now? Two of the kids still need me for some things, and alternating between being with my dad at long term care after work until about midnight, and travelling an hour-and-a-half across the city to look after my mom and helping maintain their house. I’m basically writing long-hand wherever I can get it in and it’s weeks before I get to sit down to transcribe it. Or I’m doing everything on my phone and tablet on the go. It’s not the way I prefer to work and it’s slow, but it still lets me get it in there. Because I have to do it or my brain will explode!
When the kids were small, though? Honestly,
if I was a different person and they were different kids, it probably wouldn’t
have worked. I’m a super analytical control freak with troop movement-level organisation
skills, so there’s that. Okay, and a life-long insomniac, so have more awake
hours at my disposal than normal people. My most productive writing time is midnight onward, so it actually worked in my favour when
they were little. I used to go to bed at 7:30
or 8:00pm when they did and woke up at 12:30 or 1:00am to write.
I also got the laundry and cleaning done then to leave me free time to focus on
the kids in the day – every time I got up to make a coffee, I did one task. Once
a month I planned all the meals and snacks on a chart that I made shopping
lists from so I wouldn’t waste time or money. Sundays I cooked five full
dinners and parcelled them up in the fridge with labels on them to save time in
the week. I wrote a lot long-hand sitting on benches waiting for them to finish
swimming lessons or martial arts or whatever else I had them signed up for. Somewhere
in there, I cranked out five full first draft novels. I didn’t go on trips. I
didn’t go out. My entire life was kids and writing or consignment art. And I
was totally okay with that. Someone else? Maybe wouldn’t be.
I have very clear priorities. I’m also very
clear on what I’m willing to sacrifice. My mother wasn’t ever a well person, so
I learned early how to squeeze in things I really wanted to do between looking
after her, raising my two sisters and working part-time to help my dad. I
already had the experience when I found myself in the position of being the only
parent of my own four kids.
Okay, so the “pantster” thing… I can say,
with all honesty, I’ve never “pantsted” anything in my life. Being this
consistently, incredibly busy, most times? There’s no opportunity to write plans
down. But let’s be honest, a lot of the kid stuff wasn’t rocket science and it
left my brain free. So I trained myself to do it in my head. All of it. All the
figuring out, all the plotting. By the time I had a block of time to sit down
in front of a keyboard or with a pen and paper, I could just write my ass off.
All my “outlines” start the same way – with a super-descriptive hinging scene,
usually the story conflict or premise, with an important exposition of the main
character. It’s my brain shorthand for the whole story, a memory trick. Then I
start telling myself the story – the who, what, where, when, why – and it
morphs into the opening lines and I just keep going. The story is already done
in my head and I’m basically transcribing by that point. I do it that way now,
because that’s how it needed to happen then or it wasn’t getting done. And it
not getting done is unacceptable to me. Since I still don’t have a lot of time,
I’m still outlining in my head. At least when I have stolen moments, I can write
like a demon and not have to waste time plotting.
Wisconsin’s landscape has a been a HUGE source of inspiration for my fantasy fiction. Your first novel, Blood Runner, is set in Canada—just like you! Do you find yourself utilizing special places from your life for settings in your stories, or is the landscape itself a muse?
I’d say it’s more the landscape that’s the muse. There’s a few countries I have a huge affinity for, for no particular reason, though more in the historical sense – ancient Ireland, Britain, Rome, Egypt, Sumer, Japan. I’ve studied a lot about them over time, so have a lot of fodder in my head for inspiration. I can’t go to those places, because the ancient versions I want to visit no longer exist. So instead, I use them to write from. Being immersed in one of those places is like taking a visit back in time to me. It’s cool, like owning your own time machine, y’know?
In the grand scheme of things, Canada isn’t that old and doesn’t fit in with the
affinity I have for some of those other ancient places. But the forests here are
old and I do love that. The trees and rocks have been around a very long while.
There’s forest here with trees hundreds of years old and the Canadian
Shield is right underneath us and that’s been there since the last
ice age. How cool is that? I’ve spent a lot of time in the forests, so love to
write about them. Thinking about them is uplifting to me. I’m big on nature overall
and love to write longhand outdoors when that’s possible. I find that very
inspirational, sitting outside under a tree scratching words out.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Well, I’m a research junkie, so I’m doing research all the time, often not even toward a purpose, but because I love it. I have so much useless information in my head. So, the length of time I study is moot. With that much constant input, my subconscious has a tendency to make connections between seemingly unrelated things while I’m busy with life. When one of those connected circumstances bubbles up, that’s when I sometimes do extra research to fill in the holes. I can’t write about anything until I can speak about it with authority and I need to have it all in my head before I start. It’s what we do as writers, isn’t it? Become forty-eight hour experts on anything from rocket science to earth worms. When I know enough, then I write. To get to that point could be a few weeks, but could also be years. Since I don’t work on only one story at once, it’s always in rotation.
I do a lot of book studying, but depending
on what I need, also do practical study. Fight scenes or any hand combat, for
instance, I do, in fact, act out to make sure they’re plausible. I’m lucky, because
my eldest son does stunt work and is a multi-disciplined martial artist,
swordsman, archer and edge weapon aficionado. He helps me physically block out
my fight scenes for authenticity. I’ve done an extreme conditions survival
course where they drop you in the forest in the middle of winter and you need
to build a shelter, fire, find food and the like. I love camping and living off
the land and know how to fish and clean animals and find edible forage. I had
an organic garden when the kids were growing up, but it wasn’t only that – it
was major practical study. I read up on everything about crop rotation, pioneer
techniques for vegetable gardening, organic pest control and composting,
practiced it everyday, became a Master Composter, and tracked the results and
weather patterns complete with sketches in a large binder over all the years I
had it and still have that research data for reference. I also study, make and
use herbal remedies myself, so that’s ongoing, and have a great interest in
living off the grid, so currently practicing those behaviours as I work in that
direction. Over time, anything I needed to know about, I taught myself and
picked up that skill from jewellery-making to calligraphy to hand quilting to
home renovation to ceramics to building a hydro generator in a stream.
When the zombie apocalypse happens and it’s
end of times? You can come with. I plan on building a town. Only people I like
get to live there. 😉
I also find it interesting that you created a fresh take on vampires. How much research did you do on vampires before choosing the path you took for Blood Runner?
I’ve been a big Anne Rice fan for a long time and loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but actual vampire research for that story? Zero. Is that bad? I had actually been stuffing my head full of Ancient history and mythology from Egypt and Babylon for another story. And me being me, kept going backward in time, because for whatever reason, it became important I got to the root mythology and first organisation of city-states and society. That history fascinated the holy crap out of me and still does. When I studied the bits of translated mythology available at the time (there’s more now), I couldn’t stop. For whatever reason, I couldn’t leave it alone.
There’s a myth about a man who cannot eat or drink. And in their mythology, a dead body can be reanimated by the Water of Life – blood. To me, that sounded like some kind of proto-vampire. I stitched elements of a few myths together to create the premise. Gave him a nemesis, a real historical figure in the invading Akkadian king Naram-Sin who was painted in myth as pure evil and cursed by the head of the pantheon. The Great God Enlil’s disdain for humanity was so well-documented as was a whole soap opera of inter-family pantheon conflict, the story told itself. It turned into a tale of mistaken vampire identity.
I still have so much story left that never
made it into Blood Runner, a whole universe. I think once I’m done getting it
out, it’ll lose its association with vampires and people will see what it
really is. Vampires are cool and I love them, but that’s not the story focus,
so I really didn’t need the depth of research in that area I might have
otherwise. It was only a device.
Your latest book, The Seer, is about a Druid named Bronan, and I see you yourself are a Bardic Druid. I would love to hear how your spiritual nature influences your writing; or, would you consider your storytelling to be its own “faith,” as it were? I can’t help but ask because I myself am a Christian, but I rarely include elements related to faith in my fiction. Severed Selves, you could say.
I don’t think I can separate those things, because it’s both – inspiration as well as the storytelling being its own brand of sacredness, since words come from the soul. I’m lucky, from the fantasy writer side of things, because Druids and magic are popular story topics with readers. I know a lot about modern Druids and history and mythology, so can speak with some authority in that space. Besides, people love that stuff. And why not? I’m just like everyone else – the ancient Druids are just as mysterious and fascinating to me, because there’s really so little known about them. And magic is, well, magical!
I write foremost to amuse myself and being
immersed in those magical worlds is escapism. Right up there with dreaming of
flying and imagining we’re superheroes when we’re kids, right? I mean, it’s a
sad fact that the more life imposes arbitrary boundaries and traps us in expectations
and responsibilities, we lose those dreams. It’s limiting. I think we need to escape
into times of unfettered brainspace to balance off all the other crap. Druidry
is the continuous responsibility to keep balance on a cosmic level and this is
exactly the same thing to me. When we can immerse ourselves in a world where
those boundaries aren’t grinding us down, even for only the length of time it
takes to finish reading a story, we can regain some inner balance and
perspective. As a reader, I love that. And as an author? I consider it a public
Words are my medium as a Bardic Druid, my
divination, and how I connect with universal consciousness. I walk the path of
knowledge, so seek out universal truths, those things that are real and true for
everyone. That’s where we all connect, so goes hand-in-hand with taking a
reader on a journey. A lot of my writing to amuse myself is speculative, where
I’m figuring these things out and pushing down my own thought barriers. As a
Druid, I embrace the responsibility to maintain balance, speak the truth and especially
to oppose injustice and be an agent of fairness for everyone around me. I’ve
been told that makes me some kind of throwback, dying on a hill of my own moral
code, and they may be right. But to me, treating people right and standing up
against wrong is simply the right thing to do and not because of a prize at the
end. I know all this stuff influences my writing and you can see it leaking out.
In the sense of all that, being a writer is more than a job to me. It’s rolled
into my spiritual path and there’s no way to tell where one ends and one
I think the biggest influence on my writing
is probably hyper-awareness about what I’m capturing in words. To me, words are
so much more than only letters arranged on a page. The writing should be real
and true, should be honest, and should allow us, as human beings, to meet there
on common ground. We can laugh together, get riled-up together, cry together, I
can lift people up and that’s all about keeping balance. Speaking about
injustice within the confines of a fictional story is giving voice to it, but
in a way less uncomfortable to explore. I can write about universal truth. Or
that, in fact, we’re all the reluctant hero, working through our own
myriad life crap and evolving as we go while learning to step up about bad
things even when we don’t want to. It’s easy to relate to, because we’re all on
that same journey. In that way, we can connect with people we’ll never know on
a very deep, emotional level. That’s so powerful, y’know?
Magic is simply intention charged with our own energy and that’s carried into writing for a writer. From our perspective, there’s an element of sacredness to it, because we do, in fact, tear those words out of our soul to get them on the page. Whether we know it consciously or not, that ability through writing is the greatest magic there is. If you want to get super existential about it… From that perspective?
Lastly, do you have any tips or encouragement for your fellow writers?
Wait, yes. If you’re not already lost down
that road, take an ice cream scoop and dig out that part of your brain telling
you it’s a good idea and go get a real job. You’ll thank me later.
Seriously, though, remember you’re playing
a long game. If you’re doing it to become rich next week and can’t understand
why you’re not famous after your first six months? Take your ball and go home.
While that would be lovely, that’s not the reality for most writers. You really
do have to do it, because you get something out of it, out of the creation. You
have to do it, because it makes you sacrifice for it and you don’t care about
that. You have to do it, because you can’t think about not doing it or
you’ll go insane or die. If that’s not where you live? Adjust your sails and
get that ship on course. And newsflash, you have to actually love writing or
you won’t stick with it through the length of time it takes. I’ve seen some
“writers” who apparently woke up one day and thought they’d become famous and
make millions of dollars at writing after having never written a day in their
life previous to that. They thought it looked like an easy gig. *Cue massive
I’ve been a working writer, writing every
day, mostly for others and getting paid for it, for over thirty-five years. Did
it make me famous? Nope. It kept the lights on and bought groceries and clothes
for the kids. And yet? It’s fantastic to me, because I made money doing the
thing I love the most. How many people can say that? With the kids now grown, recently
I shifted to focus on only my writing and that new reality takes time to build.
No matter how much previous experience I have, it doesn’t matter. I’m fully
prepared for the length of time that comes with creating a new reality. You’re
no different coming in thirty-five-odd years behind me. Creating any new
reality takes time and that’s where you have to live in your head every day. My
goal now is the same as when I started back in college – do the thing I love every
day and aspire to make that my entire supporting income. If you don’t, you’re
going to have a lot of heartache and frustration. I think that’s a solid,
realistic and attainable goal adjustment for new writers to make.
Ask yourself if you want to be famous or successful – they’re two very different things. Thinking about becoming famous is setting yourself up for disappointment. Think about becoming successful instead. Don’t waste energy on whether anyone else is getting famous or rich before you and put all your focus and energy into honing your craft. Other writers aren’t your competition, dude, they’re your compatriots. Stop worrying about their pay check and worry about your own. Good writing means you can get paid, so never think you’re a good enough writer. That self-doubt can be your continued catalyst – it makes you extra careful about what you’re putting down there on the page and prevents you wasting time churning out garbage no one’s ever going to give you money for. I live in a constant state of terror myself. LOL If you keep your head down that way, you’ll end up becoming a polished, hard-working, consistent producer which is exactly where you want to be even if that magical fame unicorn never makes a stop at your house. Plain and simple, success takes hard work and hard work produces better writing.
It does indeed, JD. Thanks so much for chatting with me!
I’ve not known James Cudney IV as long as Blondie, but he is without a doubt one of the most avid book bloggers I know, and a fellow mystery lover, to boot! I just had to have him for an interview to help celebrate the upcoming release of his latest installment in the Braxton Campus Mystery series.
Let’s have some niceties first! Tell us a bit about yourself, please.
It’s always the general questions which stump me; where does one begin? I’ll be brave and take a chance here. I’m 42 and live in NYC. I worked in technology and project management for ~15 years before leaving my job and writing my first book two-and-a-half years ago. I’d always wanted to do it but never had the time, until I found myself starting over again. I absolutely do not regret the decision, as I was a walking ball of stress before this new career. I’m still open to going back to an office job, but it will be something very different, if I ever do. That said, I am a homebody and more of an introvert. I tend to follow a routine, but every once in a while, I surprise people with my choices. I spend a lot of time thinking about things before I ever tell others what’s going on inside my head, so when I do… it often seems to others like a quick decision. I’m a much happier person now that I’m writing and being creative. I still get stressed over editing and marketing, but it’s a very different type of monster. With no ‘real’ boss (okay, every reader IS my boss), I have more freedom to take chances on things. Luckily, my other half and our puppy keep me sane!
It says on your bio that you’ve done an extensive study of your family history. That is so fascinating! I’ve a distant cousin doing that very thing, and he’s so far discovered that our great-grandparents (or great-great? I get lost in all the great’s) were put in an internment camp in Wisconsin during World War 1 because they had German names. Is there a surprising story from your own family research you’d like to share?
Genealogy is my favorite hobby! I am an only child, so I often spent time with my aunts, uncles, and grandparents rather than siblings. It developed a curiosity about the past, and since I am an introvert, I research everything. When a grandfather passed away, I connected with a long-lost cousin who attended his funeral and shared family history. I began researching it on my own, and now almost 25 years later, I’ve gone back to the 1700s for several branches. Don’t worry, I still get confused on second cousin and first cousin once removed, et al. I know the rules, but I’m less of a stickler for those details as I am finding the exact locations of an ancestor’s birth and death. It’s amazing and scary what you can discover about the past. Interment camps? That’s awful, and fortunately, I don’t know of anything like that in my family. I do have a German great-grandfather who had to change his last name. From what I understand, he had been caught up with the mob and gambling debts while he was a boxer. He disappeared and divorced a wife and three children (in the 1910s) only to resurface two years later with a new wife, name, job (beers / bars), and kids (one of which was my grandmother). I wish I knew the whole story, but the little that’s been retained is fascinating.-
Oh wow…now THAT is the stuff of story, to be sure! I bet you could create a whole wold around your great-grandfather–your own sort of literary journey into your family past. What other literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
Interesting question! Do you mean as a writer or a reader? And literally or figuratively! 🙂 Wait, who’s asking the questions here… I should be a better interviewee, huh?
Ha! Behave yourself, Sir, or I’ll force you to babysit my sons. Mwa ha ha!
Ahem. Anyway, you were saying…
I’ve never traveled to research a setting for a book or to visit a place I’ve read about. I have traveled a lot in the past, but when I go away, I tend not to read or write. I immerse myself in culture and relaxation. That said… a pilgrimage is like taking a risk toward something you believe strongly in. For me, that would be mysteries and cozy little towns. When I find a series and author I like, I tend to read everything all at once. I did that with the ‘Cat Who’ books by Lilian Jackson Braun; they were one of my first addictions in the sub-genre. 2019 is the year of catching up for me, so I’m saying ‘no’ to most new books and series, allowing enough time to get fully caught up on my TBR before adding to it again.
I don’t blame you for focusing on your TBR list. You have read a lot of books. Like, a TON of books. 500 reviews?! That’s AMAZING! So of course, I have to ask: Have you ever gotten reader’s block? If so, how did you overcome it?
When I was working full-time, I barely read a book every two weeks. Now, I’m able to read a few each week. In 2017, I began using Goodreads much more. I wrote a book review for everything I could remember from the past. I also wrote one as soon as I finished reading a new book. As of today, I’m at about 850, but I’m definitely forgetting hundreds from the past. I have gotten reader’s block a few times in the last 2+ years since I set my Goodreads Challenge in the 150+ books range. It often happens when I am writing my own book, then try to step away for a break. I find myself reading the book to find styles I like or ways to improve my editing, as opposed to just relaxing to enjoy a good book. In that way, writing books has ruined reading books for me. Sometimes, I also find myself just too tired to read, or in need of something vastly different so that I can escape. I won’t ever DNR (Did Not Read) a book. I try a few times, then put it aside and try again a month later. If it’s still not working, I’ll skim it and write a brief review, explaining why it didn’t work for me. If it’s a book an author specifically asked me to read, I won’t review it; I’ll share with them why I struggled and let them decide how to handle it. I don’t ever want to hurt another author if for some reason I’m just not in the right place to read that book.
That’s perfectly understandable, James. I like reading for escape from my genre, too; I love writing fantasy, but it’s so lovely to read mysteries for a little break. And indie authors do NOT have it easy out there in the virtual bookstore, so it’s wonderful that you focus on helping fellow writers rather than put them down.
All this reading and writing must mean you’re keeping a pretty sharp eye on the publishing industry. What do you consider to be the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and what can we as writers do about it?
Excellent question! I do pay attention, but at the same time, I’ve always believed in doing what you feel is best and ignoring the status quo. For better or worse, the market is super flooded now. Anyone can write a book, which is good and bad. Reading is cheaper, given sites like NetGalley and electronic books; however, the quality of a book is much more questionable when it hasn’t gone through a rugged process to ensure it’s top notch. All I mean by that is that it’s a lot harder to choose books to read nowadays. Some indie books are WAY better than traditionally published books, and some traditionally published books have awful editing processes. For me, it really comes down to the book’s genre, summary, and themes. I don’t read reviews other people write anymore. Let me clarify that… I read reviews my friends write because I support them, but I don’t read reviews before deciding whether to read a book or not. Other people’s opinions have such a range… after reading over 1000 books, I trust my own judgment when choosing what to read. That said, I think the most unethical practice is probably paying for reviews when the book hasn’t actually been read. I’m totally in support of paying someone to read your book and write an honest review; however, if you pay sites to post bunches of positive reviews when the book wasn’t read, it’s not very honest and fair. I understand the desire to do it — you need positive reviews when you first get started, so that part makes sense. But there are better ways to accomplish it, in my opinion. My best suggestion to counter it is find friendly reviewers and ask for their help before paying for fake reviews.
Excellent advice! We have to keep in mind that readers can be very particular with their tastes; what could be a beautiful story to one could be a mangled mess to another.Plus, you know who can/will appreciate your own shift in writing tastes.Your first two novels, Watching Glass Shatter and Father Figure, are both pretty dark dramas when compared to the lighter tone of your Braxton Campus mysteries. What inspired this shift? Do you think you’ll ever shift away from cozies and into the darker realm once more?
I actually have the answer to these questions, phew! I have ZERO clue why I started with a dark family drama before a cozy mystery. I read cozies so much, how on earth did I not go with what I knew! The easy explanation is that Watching Glass Shatter stemmed from a dream I HAD to develop. It took me a year to finish the book and find a publisher. At the same time, I had been building my blog and decided to let my followers choose the scope of my second book. I published a post with 5 or 6 story ideas, then let votes decide. They picked Father Figure, another dark drama. I finished writing and publishing it in April 2018, then decided it was time to write a cozy. I’d published that I was planning to write a sequel to Watching Glass Shatter in late 2018 / early 2019, but I got sidetracked and wrote 4 books in the cozy mystery series because I saw the power of marketing behind a series, and the ideas kept flowing. At the same time, I fleshed out the plot for the Watching Glass sequel and began drafting the outline. I’m happy to report that I’ve begun writing it already. My plan is to publish the fifth cozy in the Braxton series in October 2019, as it will be a Halloween-themed mystery. Then, I will focus on the Watching Glass sequel with a mid 2020 target release. At the same time, I’m working on another mystery series, but it will not be considered cozy. I intend to write a book in all major genres if I can motivate myself even more this year!
Yowza, what a goal! But clearly, mysteries have pride of place in your heart. Was it a mystery novel that first sparked the storytelling passion inside you? If so, which story and why?
It began with Poe and Christie. I love solving puzzles, and being part of the story by playing detective is an amazing way to connect with the author. I also like secrets, at least in terms of trying to discover what someone else is keeping from me. I am not a secretive person myself, probably the opposite – I say too much! It’s definitely my go-to genre, so when I wrote my first book, it was about a family full of secrets. It wasn’t a typical mystery, e.g. in terms of “let’s solve who killed someone.” It was also an analysis of the impact of an emotional explosion on a family with real people we might know around us. My favorite mystery is Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” I recall reading and watching it in school when I was about 10 years old, then guessing the killer before (s)he was revealed. I had a inkling about the way the story was being written, and my intuition paid off… that pretty much clarified for me what type of reader I am.
To me, mysteries are a genre that do not allow for pantsing, but planning, planning, and MORE planning. Can you take us through your writing process for building strong mysteries?
I am definitely a planner. Once an idea formulates, I jot notes down on my phone, since it often happens when I’m out and about (which I dislike, since I said I was a homebody) or waking up from a dream. Once it’s strong enough to organize into a summary, I’ll prepare a 150-word overview. Then, I’ll write an larger outline. I begin with a bullet list of key plot points, then descriptions of characters. Once I know the details of the victim, I create the suspect list, including red herrings and real clues. From there, I create the 10 to 15 key scenes that will help readers solve the crime. I organize the timeline for all the events, then I break the detail into chapter by chapter summaries. Each chapter has 2 or 3 scenes. Each scene lists the characters and settings, as well as what info needs to be discovered and what open questions must arise. From there, it turns into a ~30-page outline that I read several times. This process takes about a week at most. Then I write 2 chapters per day, ignoring the desire to edit. After the first draft is written, I read it and rewrite a new outline without looking at the old one. I do this to see how much has changed, as this helps me figure out areas that are weak and strong. It’s back and forth at that point. I have a weird memory: I forget tons of things from the past, but I’ll remember every arc, red herring, or clue that need to be followed up on. It’s rare I leave anything open-ended in a first draft, but sometimes there are a few unresolved issues. I merge the two outlines, decide what new scenes need to occur and finish my second draft. At that point, editing takes over, then early alpha and beta readers help me identify when I need more suspense or stronger alibis and motives.
Thank goodness for trusted readers–and for this wonderful chat! Would you like to wrap this up with some encouragement for your fellow writers?
I was an English major in college. I’ll say right from the start, I know 90% of the grammar rules but have forgotten a few. I majored in English not because I wanted to be a walking grammar expert but because I enjoy reading and connecting with authors. I LOVE when a reader writes a review on a book and only talks about a grammar issue. I’ve had two where the reviewer only wrote “This books needed to go through more editing.” I laughed because that’s such a ‘useful’ review. I’m all for negative or constructive feedback and criticism, but what a reviewer writes is often a bigger characteristic of them as a person rather than the writer. An author takes 1000+ hours to write a book, not including all the other people that help her or him. A reader takes 30 seconds to write a review and chooses to be mean. There will always be people like that. They are the same people who bullied others. They are the same people who hide behind the Internet and couldn’t actually say it to your face. They are the same people who are probably miserable at home or like to hurt others because they can’t solve their own problems. That’s something I’d like to share with the rest of the writing community — People can be mean, but you need to ignore them when they are hurtful.
If there’s nothing valuable in their review, let it go and write your next book.
On the positive side, as I want to end the interview that way, writers have the best job in the world. They can do anything they want. They can use it for good to promote awareness or provide entertainment. They can use it to help themselves process through pain or emotions. They can use it to make an income. They can use it to express creativity and ideas inside their head that yearn to be released. Aren’t we lucky? I also love how we all support one another and promote each other’s work rather than think of it is as a competition. That’s the best kind of world to live in. So thank YOU!
And thank YOU, James, for all that you do! You’re a wonderful fellow writer and supporter in these crazy publishing waters. I’m sure your latest mystery, Mistaken Identity Crisis, is going to be awesome!
BLURB: A clever thief with a sinister calling card has invaded Braxton campus. A string of jewelry thefts continues to puzzle the sheriff given they’re remarkably similar to an unsolved eight-year-old case from shortly before Gabriel vanished one stormy night. When a missing ruby is discovered near an electrified dead body during the campus cable car redesign project, Kellan must investigate the real killer in order to protect his brother. Amidst sorority hazing practices and the victim’s connections to several prominent Wharton County citizens, a malicious motive becomes more obvious and trickier to prove. As if the latest murder isn’t enough to keep him busy, Kellan partners with April to end the Castigliano and Vargas crime family feud. What really happened to Francesca while all those postcards showed up in Braxton? The mafia world is more calculating than Kellan realized, and if he wants to move forward, he’ll have to make a few ruthless sacrifices. Election Day is over, and the new mayor takes office. Nana D celebrates her 75th birthday with an adventure. A double wedding occurs at Crilly Lake on Independence Day. And Kellan receives a few more surprises as the summer heat begins to settle in Wharton County.
In my January post about character death, we discussed the traumatic moment of a beloved character’s death. I loved reading your comments on how character deaths can be utilized to help strengthen stories. The ever-lovely author Shehanne Moore nailed it when she said:
A threat is a threat. End of. People can’t go up against the big guns and come out unscathed, or be labelled ruthless warriors and then be pussy cats. On another level life doesn’t always end happily with rose tinted sunsets.
These past few months, I’ve been struggling with the Act 1s of stories littered with murder and mayhem–mainly mayhem. It hit me, then, or at least while describing a corpse, that the Unknown’s Death can do wonders in making a story compelling to readers.
Now I’m not just talking typical Red Shirt Deaths. The lovely Cath Humphris referred to this kind of death back in January:
Which deaths irritate me? Well, it’s not so much in books, as on screen, and hopefully these days less usual to see. I mean those dramas when you can pick out who who will be ‘knocked-off’, pretty much from their introduction, because of their race or gender. A lot of the old ‘B’ movies and detective series were extremely lazy about the introduction of ‘canon fodder’ characters. It’s such a shame, because some of these stories were otherwise entertaining.
I and many others label these “Red Shirt Deaths” in honor of the original Star Trek show. Whenever the Enterprise crew explores an alien planet, some random security officer dies.
The Red Shirt Death is meant to make the “life or death” stakes clear to both the characters and the audience of that given episode. The audience, however, knows full well that Shatner and Company aren’t going to get killed, so there’s not exactly much tension when a Red Shirt dies.
But the Unknown Character Death done right can burn into your reader’s psyche and leave a scar for years, and years, and years.
I mean, you know that scene.
The kind that traumatized you as a child. The kind that glued you to the story even though your little brain’s utterly horrified and wants your body to flee to the safety of your mother’s lap, your father’s desk.
Who Framed Roger Rabbitcame out when PG meant “Pare down the Gore.” So long as characters didn’t have sex, drop F-bombs, or remove each other’s intestines on screen, the movie was considered family friendly.
I still. Remember. That screaming.
A shoe, screaming.
You only saw the shoe in that one scene.
You sure as hell didn’t forget it.
And just look at the reactions of Detective Valiant and the other officer. They are horrified. When grown men who carry guns are horrified of a toon dying, you bet your boots a kid in the audience is cowering behind her dad while he talks about Star Trek V (Dad talked A LOT during movies.)
In this one moment, we get:
The judge’s disregard for toon life
That toons, previously thought impervious to death, can actually die
That the protagonist humans regard toon life with at least some respect
That the protagonists would rather protect a toon wanted for murder than hand him over to this judge
The stakes have officially been raised because we now have visual evidence of the consequences that will be met if Roger Rabbit is captured. We now know the lengths to which the villainous judge will go in order to have his way. Detective Valiant now knows what he’s up against.
We the audience now know what the good guys are up against, and we’re scared to death for them because we’ve seen what will happen if the bad guys get them.
Another ’80s example comes in Jim Henson’s fantasy epic Dark Crystal. The scene’s so terrifying that YouTube won’t even let me share the scene, so I’ve got to link you to the moment where an evil Skeksi is draining the life essence from a podling and traumatize you that way.
Does the podling die? No.
Then it’s not character death, Jean!
Hush, yes it is. This creature’s life has been drained. We’ve witnessed a living being undergo a damning transformation into a zombie.
This may as well be death.
Once again, this is a moment that
establishes the power of the evil Skeksis
displays the evil Skeksi’s disregard for innocent life
That’s what makes these deaths so horrifying:
We’re watching the innocent and vulnerable be rendered lifeless.
These aren’t armed podlings. The shoe wasn’t trying to kick the judge and take him down. These are innocent, unarmed creatures completely unable to fight against the threat.
When we see them die, we realize the villains are without mercy or conscience. We must watch on to see the heroes take the villains down because those villains must be held accountable for their actions.
How to swing this in a book?
Let’s return to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. I wrote a post on this book some time ago as a great study in world-building; this time, let’s see how they handle a character death in the first two chapters.
On page one, we meet the expedition team into the mysterious Area X, and the narrator of this novel is the biologist. The others are the psychologist, the surveyor, and the anthropologist. Why no names?
I would tell you the names of the other three, if it mattered, but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two. (9)
The stakes feel raised at this point. We know something goes wrong with the surveyor and psychologist, but we don’t know what. We follow the biologist and her team investigate a peculiar structure near the base camp of abandoned by previous expeditions, and wonder when things will go wrong.
We don’t have to wait long.
The anthropologist was gone, her tent empty of her personal effects. Worse, in my view, the psychologist seemed shaken, as if she hadn’t slept. … “Where is the anthropologist?” the surveyor demanded, while I hung back, trying to make my own sense of it. What have you done with the anthropologist? was my unspoken question… (38-29)
The surveyor and biologist go into the structure and walk the seemingly eternal stairs downward to discover new footprints, and beyond them, they discover:
It was the body of the anthropologist, slumped against the left-hand wall, her hands in her lap, her head down as if in prayer, something green spilling out from her mouth. Her clothing seemed oddly fuzzy, indistinct. A faint golden glow arose from her body. … Something clicked into place, and I could see it all in my head. In the middle of the night, the psychologist had woken the anthropologist, put her under hypnosis, and together they had come to the [structure] and climbed down this far. (60,63)
We’re only in Chapter 2, and one character–one of the only four characters in this novel–is already dead.
It’s not like we knew the anthropologist. The biologist seemed to barely know her, let alone care about her as a human being. But by killing a character this early in the story, we know the stakes are raised. Not only do we see what Area X can do to a human being, but we realize one of the human beings in this expedition is willing to kill to achieve her ends. We readers need to see that psychologist be held accountable. We need to see the biologist escape Area X, so we read on.
There’s a power in the sacrifice of the innocent life to the villain’s ambition.
Use it wisely.
How about you? Have you ever seen/read the Unknown Character Death used effectively? I’d love to know!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
Things are going to get personal here about family, friends, and the future of Jean Lee’s World.
I Lang hae thought, my youthfu' friend, A something to have sent you, Tho' it should serve nae ither end Than just a kind memento: But how the subject-theme may gang, Let time and chance determine; Perhaps it may turn out a sang: Perhaps turn out a sermon. - Robert Burns