Category Archives: Writing

Does It Count As a Tearjerker if the Book Punches You Until You Cry?

multilightsA Boston Magazine article describes an MIT Media Lab project that aims to enhance the regular reading experience via a wearable vest.

Sounds super cool already, right? 😉 Continue reading

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My Love/Hate Relationship With Red-Haired Heroines

redhair3My childhood was filled with books; therefore, it was filled with pages upon pages of red-haired heroines. From Anne of Green Gables to Aerin of The Hero and The Crown to Alanna of Tamora Pierce’s books, I voraciously read books about women who were different from the crowd. These weren’t swooning ladies looking for a rescue. They were misunderstood and often fiery. Like their hair.

And how I longed for red hair. Red hair would mark me as different, yet lovely. A beautiful force to be reckoned with. Red haired protagonists are teased about their hair, but everyone knows they’re actually beautiful and special.

I wish life were more like that. Kids would only be teased for qualities that are actually assets, and everyone would have beautiful red hair.  Continue reading

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Wanted: Better Cliches to Describe the Kindle

kindle paperwhiteCracking open a book is a familiar phrase that describes reading a text for the first time, but cracking open a Kindle (or iPad) is an alarming turn of events that will surely turn a good day into a bad day filled with customer-service phone calls.

Advancements in technology are great, but what happens when advancements in descriptive cliches don’t keep pace?

OK, so you know I’m just having fun with doomsday rhetorical questions, but in all seriousness, I find myself searching for non-robotic ways to describe reading an e-book. Can’t crack it open, can’t dog-ear it, can’t turn pages, can’t describe the pages as well-worn. You can sort-of judge an e-book by its cover, even though you don’t see the cover other than when buying it. Continue reading

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How To Come Up With Good Story Ideas

If there were a store that sold fresh, creative, one-of-a-kind story ideas, I have a feeling that writers would bash down the doors and clean out the inventory faster than a crowd of Black Friday shoppers.

I believe that good ideas are the currency of compelling writing. Too often, writers pour their hearts (and words) into has-been stories based on tired old ideas. Instructional books and critique partners can ratchet up the level of the prose, but there are few nuts-and-bolts techniques that guarantee the birth of a wonderful idea.

But creativity is essential. A good idea is like the engine of a gleaming new car. The paint and tail fins of your beauty might gleam, but without a unique concept revving up in the background and powering the prose, the story goes nowhere. Or, at least it doesn’t go to PublishedLand.

I can’t claim to be privy to any special technique (the champagne bottle awaiting my original idea is still on the shelf), but I’ve become more aware, lately, of why certain ideas are special. By examining creative ideas out there in the world, I hope to better discern whether my own ideas are worthy of my writing time, before I waste months figuring that out the hard way.

I’ve noticed that quite a few creative ideas combine seemingly disparate topics. The easiest example that comes to mind is the popular Jane Austen/zombie mash-up, aptly titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Take one thing and twist it up with a totally unrelated thing, and you might just have a good idea.

The Hunger Games, a young adult dystopian series by Suzanne Collins, offer a less extreme version of this principle, in a thematic sense. The books are basically a mash-up of gladiator style fighting, reality TV, and revolution.

Short stories can also effectively pull a creative combo idea. Recently, I read the Hugo-nominated story Bridesicle, which concerns a cryogenically frozen young girl who finds herself awakened in the future. Sure, freezing someone and reviving them in the future has been done before, but the author delightfully combines that familiar concept with the idea of a dating service. So, you have a frozen young girl waking up in the future for a series of blind dates. If she’s chosen as a bride, she gets to be permanently revived. But if her suitor isn’t happy, she’s popped back into the freezer indefinitely. Bingo. Original idea.

There’s definitely more to creating ideas than random mash-ups, but I think it’s a good place to start in learning to recognize and understand creativity, and hopefully to nurture it too. I’ll share more thoughts on this later, but if you have a chance, definitely check out Bridesicle and appreciate a truly unique concept in action.

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Good Brother, Bad Brother Stories

A few years ago I watched the anime Trigun, a story that centers around a man named Vash and his twin brother Knives. Unsurprisingly, one of the brothers was evil. I’ll leave you to guess which one…

I was laughing about this less-than-obvious name choice with a friend, when it occurred to me that the dearly departed TV show Lost involves a similar interpretation of brothers. One baby, Jacob, is born and wrapped in a nice white blanket. Then Jacob’s brother is born and wrapped in a foreshadowing black cloth. White-blanket baby becomes the illustrious protector of the island and black-blanket baby gets shafted with the role of Nemesis. Poor evil baby doesn’t even get a name.

Why do so many stories out there have a plot involving a good brother and an evil brother? Often these brothers are twins, but not always. In the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, good little Ender becomes the Battle School hero and saves the world, blah blah blah. Meanwhile, his older brother Peter’s hobbies include torturing animals and Ender.

I haven’t conducted a thorough survey here by any means, but by just recalling my own media consumption experiences it seems like the good brother/evil brother trope is quite common. Other examples include The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks (good twin/evil twin), the Bible (Cain/Abel and Jacob/Esau), The Man in the Iron Mask (good twin/evil twin), The Dragonlance series (good twin/evil twin), and The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan (good brother/bad brother, although there’s a cool twist to that). Oh, and let’s not forget Dexter (Season 1 SPOILER), where, um, I suppose both brothers are serial killers but Dexter is most certainly the good serial killer. I’m sure there are plenty of others out there that I’m forgetting.

So, again, what’s the deal with all these good/evil brother pairings? I’m wondering why I can’t think of any good sister/evil sister stories, twins or otherwise. Can you think of any? Luke and Leia in Star Wars are boy/girl twins, and both good, so maybe girls just cancel out the evilness of boys? Seriously though, the good brother/evil brother tale seems entrenched in our storytelling, ancient as the Bible.

I wonder if it’s a vestige of the pre-feminist revolution days when mostly everything was by men and about men. But that explanation seems too shallow, too easy. We’ve had decent stories in recent memories with strong female protagonists, and some in the past too, so why not a slew of good sister/bad sister stories to keep pace with the boys? Or even more boy/girl twin stories?

Perhaps our modern brother stories are echoes of legend, of an archetype. But still, why are brothers handy personifications of good and evil and not sisters? I understand why women in legend are often earth goddess mother types. I get why ancient cultures were kind of freaked out by twins in general. Is the brother cliche a result of men’s higher rates of murder in society? Is it because men are typically more physical than women, and physicality equals violence equals death equals evil?

From the stories I’ve named, the brother trope seems to appear more frequently in speculative fiction than in the literary variety. Of course, I enjoy reading/watching speculative type things and have probably read more of such stories as a result, so my experience is biased.

I’m curious if anyone else has thoughts on this. Why are we drawn to brothers, and not sisters, who personify good and evil?

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Lost Ending: Emotion Over Mythology and a Pool of Glowy Light

The ideal Lost ending would have wrapped up the important religious mysteries, explained the sci-fi mysteries, thrown some philosophy in the mix, and delivered an emotionally compelling ending for the characters.

After watching Lost last night and re-hashing it today, it’s clear that we didn’t get the ideal ending. All of those things in my dreambag didn’t happen–Lost’s potential as a story ended up being too tall an order to fill for the writers. You can’t change TV once when it’s written and aired, unlike a book. So, rather than try to haphazardly do all the things I mentioned above, the writers focused on bringing all the characters together in an emotional tour de force. Forget about it making sense or anything.

And yet, I’m not angry at the ending. All season, Lost has killed off characters left and right, some in the most preposterous ways (was there any reason for Sayid to dive through the sub door in a suicide run with the bomb rather than just throw the thing through the door and shut it?). The writers were clearly going for emotional earlier in the season too, but previous deaths didn’t coax one tear from my eyes. I felt nothing for many of the “emotional” scenes early in Season Six. Even Sun and Jin dying failed to move me. Why? I’m not a cold-hearted troll. Many scenes were poorly written, for various reasons. Sun and Jin’s death suffered from terrible writing and didn’t even have the lovers speak their final words in Korean. Sun and Jin’s reunion inserted Frank Lapidus in the most ridiculous way. Illana picked up dyamite and just went kaboom, but she wasn’t a comic relief character like Artz, so it didn’t work. Etc. Etc. Lots of stuff didn’t work.

So, I essentially set my expectations for the finale to Low, and I was thrilled to experience an emotionally resonant ending. Few hokey lines, no random one liners, no plot-device-convenient deaths, and few expedient deaths either. The last few minutes, starting with Jack and Kate’s farewell kiss (Kate: Tell me I’m going to see you again. Jack:……) hit me hard, followed by the montage of flashbacks as key characters in the sideways universe remembered their island pasts. Juliet and Sawyer with the Apollo candy bar=excellent acting and writing. Jack realizing he’s dead in the sidewaysverse with Christian. The last scene brought the show full circle, with Jack stumbling to the bamboo patch, lying down with Vincent, watching the Ajira plane fly over, and then closing his eye.

So, putting myself into the shoes of the writer’s, I understand their strategy to focus on the characters’ emotional ending rather than construct a mythology-rich ending with a rushed pace and flat tone.

But, the series will ultimately disappoint many people because it used its complex mythology as a six-season red herring, forsaking it at the end in a hokey pool of light. Remember when Jacob said that the island was a cork that kept the evil from the world?

On a show that prided itself on quasi-philosophical leanings and intelligent fans, it seemed mighty cheap for Jack and Desmond to plug up a pool of glowy light with a LITERAL cork.

At least the island world didn’t turn out to all be a dream, right? For the writers out there, the message of Lost seems to be–if you screwed up the story, then go for the emotion instead. But emotion doesn’t trump story for everyone, not even for me. So, at best, the ending of Lost half-worked. The fans who were in it for the mystery and mythology were left in limbo, even as the characters processed into that shiny white light. Literally.

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Common Werewolf Names, From Shiver to Twilight to True Blood

In the past year, I’ve read/watched more vampire/werewolf stories than ever before. And I’ve noticed that the werewolf stories share something common beyond the whole sloughing off your human skin thing. When I read Shiver it hit me for certain: werewolves are often named Sam.

From my own limited experience (I can’t pretend to have read THAT many werewolf books), I know there’s a Sam in the Twilight pack of wolves. That suspiciously shaggy looking guy who owns the bar in True Blood was named Sam, and, sure enough, he shapeshifted into a dog. (For my scientific purposes here, shapeshifting into a dog still counts.) Shiver’s main character is the endearingly poetic werewolf Sam. So that makes three werewolf Sams. Coincidence?

I hit up the Google for some explanation, and I found an interview with Shiver author Maggie Stiefvater where she acknowledges the problem. Apparently her publishers noticed the werewolf Sam in Twilight too, and asked her to change the Shiver main character’s name. But she liked the name Sam, and other names just didn’t fit. Then she had a bright idea. Instead of arguing that the Twilight name overlap was a fluke, she made a list of ALL the werewolves named Sam in literature, making a case that the werewolf Sam thing is so common that one more Sam in Shiver doesn’t matter. So apparently there are more Sams out there that I haven’t discovered. Sam is like the John or Michael of werewolves–no one can accuse you of copying.

No promises if you name your werewolf Colton or Skyler.

Anyway, Stiefvater’s editors bought her argument, and werewolf Sam remained in Shiver. I agree with Stiefvater’s decision to defend the name. Maybe I’ve been subconsciously brainwashed to view all Sams as shaggy, vulnerable, and prone to shapeshifting, but the name works, especially for the main character in Shiver.

Oddly enough, a few days after reading Shiver, I spotted this story in Fantasy magazine. No werewolf Sam, but… wait for it… there’s a Grace in the story! Grace being the human girl love interest in Shiver. The trend continues.

EDIT: I am all surprised and thrilled that Maggie Stiefvater, the author of Shiver, saw this post and tweeted it! Thanks to everyone who stopped by via her page, and thank you Maggie for the shout-out.

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Book Review: What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I think Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best nonfiction writers out there. I tend to get pretty picky about the quality of writing in nonfiction books (if I wanted to read a boring textbook full of stilted sentences I’d go back to school), but Gladwell’s words go down smooth. Seamless transitions, compelling anecdotes, unconventional yet logical thinking. I like the guy. I’d like to invite him over to dinner and just hear him talk for two hours.

What the Dog Saw is a compilation book, the best of Gladwell’s essays cherrypicked from the pages of the New Yorker. There’s no common theme, but his work is arranged under three broad categories.

Although all the sections are worth reading, the Personality, Character, and Intelligence section held my attention more than the others. The story on late-blooming versus early-blooming geniuses opened my mind to subsets of talent, and I learned plenty about the artist Cezanne along the way.

Among my favorite individual pieces, Gladwell writes about why mustard commands so much shelf space for its gourmet iterations, while innovation in the field of ketchup seems doomed. I also enjoyed his pieces about hair dye ads in the postwar era, the birth control pill, and the talent-centered culture that contributed to Enron’s demise.

Actually, I eagerly consumed too many pieces to name them all. It’s simpler to name the few I didn’t like. Oddly enough, I could have done without the title story, What the Dog Saw, about the dog whisperer Cesar Millan. The story about the Challenger disaster didn’t hold my attention either. Still, the majority of the book is fascinating and well-worth buying/checking out from your local library/filching from a friend.

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Four Reasons Why Frank Lapidus’ One Liners Ruin Everything

Poor Frank Lapidus! One of Lost’s more likable (and sadly under-developed) characters has been subjected to some bad writing lately. I often look to TV shows for lessons on my regular writing. Lost has floored me with its creativity and skillful use of rule-breaking narrative devices like flashforwards and flash-sideways.

I’ve also been floored lately by some truly grimace-worthy one liners.

On the April 20th episode (slight spoilers if you read ahead), Frank is tagging along with the group as usual, looking all ragged and, to quote Sawyer, like “some guy who stepped off the set of a Burt Reynold’s movie.” At some point, the writers must have figured that, hey, Frank needs to talk or it’ll seem like we kept him alive and tagging along just to fill out the cast poster.

So, when the Losties are on the sailboat cruising to Hydra Island, the writers think ohmygod, we need to clear everyone off deck so Jack and Sawyer can have a private fight.

Cue Frank. Frank says (approximately) “Hey, I think there are some cans of food down below. I’m going to go get some.” And then everyone promptly follows him, orderly as a line of elementary school kids filing out the door for recess.

But the best one liner, the moment where the actor playing Frank must have cringed, came at the end of the episode, during Sun and Jin’s long-awaited reunion.  Some background:  Sun had previously lost her ability to speak English following an accident.  Obviously, she gets this ability back while the emotional music soars and she embraces Jin.  She says she loves Jin or something like that.

Cue Frank.  The camera pans to him and he says, with a twinkle in his blue eyes, “Looks like Sun finally got her voice back.”

Groan.  Yeah Frank.  Yeah.  I like hearing your husky voice and all, but that just made me crack up on the spot.

So, Lost has taught me that:

1.  The misplaced one-liner is even worse in many cases than the dreaded infodump.

2. Show, not tell.

3.  Don’t assume readers/viewers are stupid, especially in a show that caters to the obsessive wiki-creating crowd.

4. Make use of a potentially awesome character like Frank.  Leaving him to languish is a shame, but inserting him in scenes as an unnecessary element is even worse. It’s like Chekov’s writing advice–if there’s a gun on the wall in Act 1, it should be fired during Act 3. The gun shouldn’t be used to scratch someone’s back though, it should be fired.

Check out this forum on Game Faqs though for some re-imagination of Lost.  What if Frank Lapidus had been inserted into every key, heart-wrenching scene?  It’d be pretty hilarious.

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Star Wars and Over Budget Science Fiction Writing

I read an interesting i09 article recently that compared the critical failure of the new Star Wars prequels to the pitfalls of writing science fiction/fantasy. Essentially, the writer argued that the original Star Wars movies were better because of the budget restrictions and technological constraints of the time period. Back in the day, director George Lucas was forced to work with limited money and technology, which meant dressing real humans in fur-suits and hoping that no one could see strings floating around the toy ships. But, the article argues, those limitations actually led to better overall choices and a tight, amazing story that still resonates in pop culture today.

The new Star Wars prequels, on the other hand, well…. they had Jar Jar Binks. They were basically a CGI orgy. Lucas went wild with the special effects, forgetting the story, the writing, and the fact that some things are just over-the-top in a bad way. With CGI and today’s level of technology, Lucas’ imagination had no limits. If he could dream it up, it could happen. Sounds good, but can turn out bad. (Remember Jar Jar!)

So, do speculative fiction writers fall prey to the same scenario? A writer has no budget, no technology restrictions.  A writer could pen a scene where winged elephants fly through the red dot on Jupiter, and bam, it’s a part of the story and on the page, even if it’s a terrible idea. And George Lucas could film it, if he so desired.

But there was a time when a filmmaker just couldn’t put that elephant on the screen. Some things were basically un-filmmable. And some of those un-filmmable things were un-filmmable because they were terrible.

The whole thing reminds me of that old adage: “Be careful what you pray for, because you might just get it.”

I think it’s an interesting way to look at writing/filmmaking, but not entirely true. Yes, restrictions can foster better writing. Ever try to write a flash fiction piece that comes in at under 500 words? Suddenly every word is valuable, and it’s easier to ruthlessly cut fluff. Choices become more important, because they’re necessary.

Still, not all special-effects laden films and imaginative fantasies are laughable failures.  Lord of the Rings offers a great counterexample on both points.  The story has giant eagles, elves, hobbits, volcanoes of doom, and Gollum.  Pretty wild and imaginative.  And the films rendered everything marvelously.  The CGI was there, but so was the writing, the acting, and the story.

I also think of a children’s book by Road Dahl, called Charlie the Great Glass Elevator (sequel to the famous Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).  That book was never filmed, at least to my knowledge, and it had a scene with these crazy squidlike creatures in outerspace going after the magical glass elevator that was also in outerspace.  Wild, but it worked.

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