Sharp’s Writer’s Blog

Editing – A Sharp Writing Guide

Hello everyone, welcome.  Today I am going to share my thoughts on editing

In later posts I will talk about feedback, and that should be a buddy or group situation.  Today, however, we focus on solo editing.

Editing is an important part of writing.  It is with editing that we refine our drafts into the fluid prose we need to engage the reader, and cut the excess/unnecessary words. Writers, to one extent or another, are perfectionists and egotists.  On some level we want our work to be as good as it can be, and for it to be read or heard.  This is fine insofar as it goes, however it also generates a problem.  In our quest to produce the perfect sentence it is very easy to write something and then stop, and edit as you go.  You’ve done it, haven’t you?

We all have.

It’s time to break that habit.  The processes of writing and the processes of editing are creation and destruction.  They are opposites, and thus use different parts of your brain.  You slow yourself down when you edit as you go.  Besides, and I will come back to this point when we get to feedback, you can only really do a proper job if you can see the full picture first.  You can’t foreshadow or plant subtle hints early on if you don’t know what happens later, after all.

So, first we need something to edit.  Something you have already written would do the job, however it is worth you getting some practice writing without editing as you go.  I am going to suggest you do some freewriting.  That is write in response to a prompt for 15 to 20 minutes without stopping or editing yourself.

Too many people try to edit as they go. This is a mistake and gave rise to the mantra, "You don't have to get it right first time, you only have to write first time."

Below there are 4 prompts or kicker lines.  They are there as starters or aids.  You need to write in response to them, either using them as your first line, writing a story that incorporates them or just write what one of them makes you feel.  Slavish adherence to the prompts is not what we are going for here

The kicker lines are

It was the largest [Blank] I had ever seen

This is the story of how we got a [Blank] for a pet.

When I went to the dump last week, [Blank]

When I went to the woods the other day, I [Blank]

Or

Just write something spontaneously.  The Kicker lines are only there as prompts, if you have an idea by all means, go for it.

Once you have your prompt or idea, start writing for 15 to 20 minutes without stopping, without editing yourself.  Then come back to the post.  I’ll be here.

Welcome back.

It is my observation that some writers will write their first draft and then immediately share it with peers for feedback.  There is certainly validity in seeking a second set of eyes to give a new perspective and to spot the mistakes that you could not.  However, it is precisely this reason that I do not like sharing my work at this point.  This is not a fear of judgement.  It is a respect for people giving their time and feedback.  I want them spending their time spotting the things I missed.  They shouldn’t be spending their time highlighting the careless errors of spelling and language that are inevitable in my first drafts.  So, that is why I always do a couple of edits on my work before sharing.

Some writers will write their first draft and then share for feedback. This is a mistake. You want people offering their time giving you useful feedback, not catching the careless errors of a first draft.

 

So, now we get to editing.

Firstly, Spelling – In this day of computers, there is very little reason for most spelling mistakes to survive the first draft.  If you are typing your work using a word processor, chances are it has a spell checker.  Your first redraft should include running the spell checker.  This will clear up any careless errors that creep in when you are writing freestyle.  Then, have a look through your writing.  Are there miss-spellings the checker didn’t get?

For instance confusions of same sounding words, with different meanings.  Here are some examples:

Two, Too, To

They’re, There, Their

Know, No

Your, You’re

If you think you are likely to be muddled by one or more of these groupings, keep a list of the various words and meanings so you can keep yourself right.  Many word processors have a search function that allows you to find specific words, meaning you can actually check every one if you so wish.

I also have Microsoft word set up to detect use of passive voice, which isn’t strictly an error, just weaker writing.  You can do this by adhering to the following instructions:

  1. Display the Word Options dialog box.
  2. Click the Proofing option at the left side of the dialog box.
  3. Click the Settings button.
  4. Make sure there is no check mark next to the Passive Sentences option.

 

For more detail on passive and active voice you can check out the Learn English British Council Page.

Next, read your work aloud.  I cannot stress enough how important this is!  Reading your work aloud forces you to slow yourself down, and even to an extent stops you skipping over parts and filling in blanks from memory.  It also is a good way of spotting clumsy language, and word repetition.  By this point you will also have a feel for your story, and if there are things that need to be adjusted or included, which you can go ahead and do.

This sounds like a lot of work to do for an early edit, doesn’t it?

That’s because it is.  Writing is often said to be 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.  A significant amount of time spent writing is actually reworking a draft, rather than simply writing it.  Writing can be a long haul.  This is normal.

At this point you are probably almost ready to share your work for feedback.  However there are four habits you should consider getting into for the best quality feedback.

First – Know what you are trying to achieve.  This ranges from as broad as what Genre you are writing in, to what effect you want to have on a reader at a specific point.

Second – Ask those feeding back if you achieved what you intended.  People providing feedback will undoubtedly provide more, however this is the first opportunity for you to find out if you are having the intended impact.

Third – Be open to the feedback.  You may not always like what you hear, however going through the process will improve your writing and help build your resilience, which is a necessary attribute for a writer to have.

There is a fourth habit, however, I will deal with that in my next post on giving effective feedback.

So, let us summarise what we have covered.  Once you have a piece ready for editing

  1. Run the spell checker
  2. Look for same sounding words
  3. Read it aloud
  4. Repeat as often as needed
  5. Know what you are trying to achieve
  6. Ask those feeding back specific questions about your work
  7. Be open to what they say

 

Just a short list of the process I go through when editing

I hope I’ll see you here next week for the post on effective feedback.

 

 

Pathos – the Ally of Writing (not to be confused with the Porthos – Ally of Athos…)

Hello everyone, welcome.  Today I am going to scratch the surface of something that can help your writing.  Disclaimer, this post contains affiliate links.

Have you ever noticed that when you are reading a story or watching a TV show something just clicks in it, and even though part of you feels like it is rubbish, something is just working for you?  I get that when reading stories or watching stuff that has a modern setting, but that links back to the past in some way.   Stargate SG1, the TV show, does this in that the antagonists style themselves as deities whose advanced technology looks archaic.  The Vampire Diaries TV show (and presumably books) have a contemporary story with a plot thread set in the past.  The Katharine Kerr Deverry series of books is a High Fantasy Series set in one period, that frequently loops back to the previous incarnations of the main characters.

It occurs to me that I have nostalgia, or even romantic notions, related to the past.  The reasons why aren’t really important, only that it is true.  Nostalgia is the reason I watched three seasons of the Vampire Diaries before becoming utterly bored.  Nostalgia is (one of) the reason(s) I am on my third complete run through of my Stargate SG1 DVDs.

I watched 3 seasons of the Vampire diaries before I got bored. My interest was sustained by nostalgia. I also have old school pictures of Frys Chocolate hanging in my kitchen for the sam reason

For me, a link to the past is appealing as a plot device.  The plot tugs on my emotions, overriding sense (not necessarily in a bad way) and gives me a pleasurable experience in consumption of the media.  Nostalgia is the ally of the Writer against my resistance.

It is an ally any writer can make use of.  The theory is simple, and should be something a writer is doing anyway.  It is part of your audience research.  Who are your audience?  What do they like?  What do they have fond memories of?

More importantly can you legitimately get any of that into your plot?

Nostalgia engages the emotional centers of the brain, basically a pathos appeal. Writers can use this pathos appeal to build loyal fans and engage people in their writing

At its most basic level, you are using the Pathos appeal of Rhetoric.  You are communicating to the emotional centre of your reader.  (Classic rhetoric holds that there are three types of appeal, Pathos, Ethos and Logos.  Pathos is emotion, Ethos is the credibility of the speaker, and Logos is content of what they are saying.  And, arguably, Pathos is probably the most effective when used properly)

How do you do this?

Ask yourself, who is your audience and what do they hanker for?

For me, it is what I perceive to be simpler times.  Even the romanticised version.

For others it could be romance itself, the story that clearly has a happy ending.

Maybe it is having a character (not necessarily protagonist) that shares common values that your readers can relate to.

On a more visceral level, if you are writing a screenplay then it could be about getting the music just right (I love the movie Delta Force, with Chuck Norris.  It is about as good as most of his movies, however the musical score is done by Alan Silvestri, one of my favourite composers which means I have vastly greater enjoyment than I should.  This theory also applies to the old show Airwolf…click and have a listen.  It is more addictive than it has any right to be)

I am very much aware that this post may appear vague.   I consider it a starting point, as I do not know who your audience is.  Let’s have a chat in the comments.

 

Let’s talk fan fiction…

Just a short post today.  Quite possibly people are going to think it strange that I talk about fan fiction on this website, however I am going to, and hopefully we can have a meaningful chat about it afterwards.

Fan fiction is a label that evokes quite a strong response in a lot of people, and in all honesty, it isn’t always a favourable one.  It is my belief that a large portion of the reading community is dismissive of Fan Fiction as a genre, or even writing.  How hard can it be to come up with a story in a world that already exists with existing characters, after all?  It isn’t proper writing if you didn’t invent the characters yourself?  Right?

Let us have a look at why people seem to dislike fan fiction and we can answer those questions.

Quality of Writing

There is a perception that fan fiction is the playground of amateurs, and as a result it is poorer quality writing.  I have read fan fiction.  Some of it is very poor quality.  However, I have read other pieces of general or genre fiction that are just as bad.  I have also read fan fiction that is of very good quality.  The quality of writing is independent of Genre, and entirely dependent on the effort and skill applied by the writer.  For this reason I no longer dismiss Fan Fiction due to the quality of writing.  (Once upon a time, I did)

 

It is all about Sexual Fantasy/Wish Fulfillment

No it isn’t.  Some of it is.  And if it makes a person happy to write about their fantasy and then let other people read it, then where is the harm.  (Unless the fantasy itself is harmful, in which case seek expertise from someone other than a blogger who blogs about writing…).  Personally, I wouldn’t want to write about and share this material, but then I don’t really understand the selfie phenomenon either(unless the picture tells a story).  The point ere is that it isn’t all about the writer’s fantasy.  Sometimes it is fun to take an existing canon and ask “What if…?”

 

There is no skill or art involved in writing about pre-established characters

Are you sure about that?  Write a couple hundred words about your living room.  Did you get good prose on your first draft?  (I am presuming not).  If you decided to actually spruce the language up a bit, was it easy?  (About as easy as any editing?)   Just because something is pre-established doesn’t make it easy to write about.

One of the things you need when you are writing is passion for your story, and it is my observation that fan fiction, whilst not always polished, is not lacking in passion for the subject.  Is it not just as hard to write a character that already has pre-established ground rules that other fans will challenge if you break?

And to say there is no skill in writing a character that may exist as part of another media is flat out wrong.  If you are writing based on a TV series and the character has a trademark style and demeanour, you have to convert something visual into something described.  Imagine someone trying to write a fan fiction in response to a video game, or roleplay game.  How do they do that?  A story is going to appear clumsy and dull if your post apocalyptic hero keeps finding ammo crates and medkits in the wilderness.  And how do you portray your RPG character who spent an hour of the game talking to other characters in one room, in no particular order, all of whom patiently waited for you to come talk to them.  The writer needs to find a way to make their work more compelling than that.  The point here being that sometimes you learn new skills trying to convert one form into your writing.  (This has certainly been my experience)

 

So what?

When I started University I was given the impression that my favoured genre, fantasy, would struggle to achieve the same marks as general fiction.  I decided I was going to ignore that warning.  I wanted to write fantasy and I wanted to write it well.  Good writing is good writing regardless of genre (and the opposite is also true).  I think the point I am making to the novice (or any) writer is that if Fan Fiction is your thing, then don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t a worthy genre.  I would also say that just because some folks look down on it doesn’t mean you should treat it with less care than you would literary fiction.  Write your story and edit it to good quality.  Don’t give folks free ammunition to shoot you down.

To the readers, I would say, judge a story on the merit of its words and not the category you find it.

The relationship between reader, writer and finished story is built on respect.  The writer’s respect for the reader and story by telling it with passion, knowing the source material, and making it the best it can be; and the reader’s respect for story and writer by judging on the merits of the finished product and not the labels with pre-judgements attached.

There is enough negativity in the world already.  We writers and readers don’t need to add to it.  Let us create good stories worthy of being read, and let us enjoy those stories realising that fan fiction is not a shortcut.

Have you, in your reading or writing, come across any other forms of fiction that are considered sub-par?  Share in the comments and let us have a chat.

Don’t Breathe – Thriller Movie and a discussion about the use of Eyes in fiction

I recently watched a movie called “Don’t Breathe”.  This is a film about a bunch of kids/young adults who decide to rob a blind war veteran who they are aware has had a major payout as a result of personal tragedy.  The film is a thriller, as when the kids get into the house, they get more than they bargain for when the blind veteran locks them in, and begins hunting them.  I guess he was supposed to be the villain but all my sympathy was with him, until the writers did something to make me lose sympathy for him (It was like reading Volpone all over again).  It’s a decent movie, with Stephen Lang playing the part of the blind veteran.

However, review is not my purpose here.  I am going to talk about one of the things that made Lang seem incredibly sinister.  His eyes.

I should preface this post by saying I am not an expert on the medical side of blindness, nor do I have experience of dealing with blindness or helping someone suffering blindness.  This post is not intended to upset anyone, however I have used some blunt comparisons.  Please consider I do this as part of a theoretical discussion about use of one element, eyes, in plot.

His character is no Daredevil.  He doesn’t have radar senses, he just has his hearing and combat training.  That makes him dangerous to the trespassers, but not sinister to the viewer.  However, his eyes help achieve that.  They are fixed ahead, and cloudy as you might expect.  And this doesn’t seem natural.

It is perfectly normal for us as humans, and for the characters we read/write/see to read the intent of another person by looking at their posture, their face, their eyes.  There is something alive about the eyes that communicates to us, and on some level it unnerves us when they are rigid.  I wanted to ponder that.  last week I talked about automata.  I believe that rigid, cloudy, eyes add to the impression that an individual is automata.  By definition, automata gives the appearance of life, but not necessarily actual life.  If we read the eyes because they are alive then does it not follow that we interpret rigid eyes, automaton eyes, as dead?  Are we unnerved because we see someone apparently alive, going through the motions, but carrying something within them that makes us subconsciously think of death?  (I am curious about your thoughts on that)

Taking a slightly different perspective, if we read emotions from eyes because they are “Windows of/to the soul”, then rigid eyes are surely walls?  In one of the most basic methods of attempting to connect with another person, a barrier is erected.

And then we have the idea that a person who cannot see should be at a disadvantage to us.  What then are we supposed to feel if the impairment is no disadvantage at all?  (And in case I need to re-iterate the point I made at the start, this is not an attack on blindness, and I have abounding respect for someone deprived a sense but capable of functioning without it).  Do we make the assumption there is something we cannot see, or understand at play?  Something supernatural?  Something uncanny?  Or perhaps we think they are faking?  Perhaps we suddenly think they have lied.  Lied, to gain advantage?  What else might they be lying about?

Now to the point of this theorising.  How do we use this as writers?

The obvious answer is through the point of view character.  Then we must make a decision.  How does that character react?  Their reaction will plant ideas in the minds of our readers, it helps us set the terms, language and ultimately genre of the plot.

Do we use the life and death metaphor?  If our story is supernatural or fantasy genre, then perhaps.  Discussion of life and death very much ticks the right box for supernatural, and rigid eyes might be the first step in your fantasy stories introducing Golems, or other such constructs.  Or perhaps even some form of curse where someone is brought under the control of another.

Do we use windows and walls?  Perhaps if we are dealing with a thriller, a foe that is unreadable even to our super-agent or our canny journalist can help the reader feel the frustration, and keep them guessing.

Or does the protagonist see their foe/antagonist, see their rigid/blind/milky/whatever eyes and wonder at how they are so capable?  They wonder if there is more going on, making the the antagonist’s blindness a form of blindness itself for the viewpoint character.  Perhaps as the protagonist tries learn to “See” in this new reality, we add mystery and hardship, helping the reader really feel the ordeal.

 

What do you think?  Comment below, and lets have a chat!

 

note – I have drawn some inspiration from this post reading Freud’s “The Uncanny“.  Worth a look if you are an aspirant of horror.

Elements of Horror: Automata – Looking at Hush, Don’t Breathe, and Pontypool

I’ve watched a few horrors lately, namely Hush, Don’t Breathe and Pontypool.  I enjoyed all of them, to one extent or another and it gets me to wondering, what are the elements a writer needs to master in order to spook the reader.   I am going to drift about on this post, and it is not intended to be exhaustive, and is purely opinion based on observation.  The topic I am drifting towards is Automata.  In this context, the semblance or appearance of life, but with certain things removed with the ultimate effect of dehumanising the automaton.

Hush was a standard slasher film, where an assailant with a white mask that made them look like a mannequin terrorises a deaf girl in her forest home.

Don’t Breathe is about a bunch of thieves breaking into the isolated home of a blind war veteran, trying to rob him, and getting more than they bargained for when he locks them in his house and starts hunting them.  (I guess he was meant to be the villain, and for much of the film, all my sympathy was with him)

Pontypool is a zombie movie, where the zombie infection is spread through infected words.  The action takes place inside the local radio station, the place uniquely suited to get word out about the new plague, but also risk communicating it.

I also studied the Uncanny whilst at University, if only for a short time and already had a few suppositions about what makes things scary.  I am going to go through each film, one by one and try to bring it together with previous studies to draw some form of a conclusion.

Hush

Currently available on netflix UK, and worth a watch.  If you want a review of it, you can find a good one over on Raistlin0903 Blog HERE (He does frequent movie reviews that I particularly enjoy, and often agree with – his review encouraged me to watch Hush).

So, we have a girl who is deaf living alone and in isolation.  First fear factor, without hearing she is deprived awareness of her surroundings except what is in her field of vision.  This effectively renders the intruder invisible to her, until he wants to be seen.

We then add to this the fact that the intruder wears a paper mache style mask.  Concealment seems irrelevant, since his intent was always to murder her and anyone who gets in the way.  So, you have to assume the mask has a different function.  I will posit that the mask is rigid, and this was the point.  A flexible mask that moves when a person talks, or looks around still feels human up to a point.  A rigid mask looks more like a doll, or a mannequin.  Taken on its own, each aspect might slightly unnerve us but let us consider what putting them together means.  We have an intruder with a face that equates to a mannequin, and a girl who cannot hear.  In essence she is deprived of several stimuli that should scream human.  Humans have eyes, and faces and sounds.  But if something moves like a human, but doesn’t have a face and doesn’t make sound then we are getting into territory that Freud spoke about in The Uncanny.  We have something that resembles an automaton.  A being that mimics the form of human, and goes through the motions, but is absent defining characteristics.  I am going a bit deeper than the film perhaps intended (but maybe it did intend this discussion).  One thing I know.  Dolls are creepy.  The idea of a featureless, soundless being walking or moving in a similar fashion to a human is also creepy.  I think we can justify saying that Automota is one element that can be used in horror to unnerve, if not scare.

Don’t Breathe

Don’t Breathe actually takes one idea of horror/thriller, the Intruder, and flips it as the protagonists are the intruders and would not have been in danger had they not broken into the house of the rich, blind, war vet played by Stephen Lang.  He has no particularly special powers.  He isn’t Daredevil with radar senses.  He is just a guy, a trained guy, but a guy nonetheless defending his house.  (There was a plot macguffin inserted to make you lose sympathy for him.  It kinda worked, I wasn’t keen on it.  But my purpose isn’t review).

Lang was blind.  His eyes, milky white.  And I think this is the most unnerving thing about him.  You can read intent in eyes.  If not emotion, you can see where eyes are looking and extrapolate intent.  But if they are solid, blank and unmoving then you get a similarly uncanny effect as with the solid mask in Hush.  Again, we have something taken slightly away from what we expect, moved in a direction that makes it less human and the result is Uncanny.

On a side note, I used this once in a roleplaying game where I had created a Wizard named Felix.  Felix lost his sight due to out of control sorcery, however I asked the Games Master if my character could start the game with eyes forged from silver.  They didn’t do anything other than see, but I wanted my character to have strange eyes.  The Games Master approved, and fortunately we have only encountered undead so far, so it hasn’t been a problem.

Pontypool

As noted, Pontypool is a Zombie movie where the infection is spread through infected words.  The infected wander around, hunting, repeating the same phrases over and over. This isn’t necessarily automata or blank eyes as with the other two movies, (though a zombie movie by definition is about automata) however the taking of phrases and repeating them over and over and over makes the infected sound like a broken record player, a broken machine.  The fact that the infected are simply transmitting the same phrase over and over also makes their voices “Undead” or “Automata”.  In essence, the words emulate a voice but it is only an approximation of voice.

 

Automata

When seeing something resembling human, acting in ways that a human might but deprived of essential human elements, such as active eyes, facial expressions or a voice then we wonder what exactly we are seeing.  Is it a biomechanical engine?  Does it bleed?  Feel pain?  Feel Joy?

It unnerves us because we have no frame of reference.  How do you deal with a flesh construct?  A vicious animal, a deranged shooter, both are terrifying in their own right but we understand them somewhat.  They are familiar.  We know that they have emotions, and they have motives and in some respects we can try and evade or reason with them.  Don’t reason with a tiger.  They are notoriously hostile diplomats.

But we don’t understand the automaton.  Does it have will of its own?  Does it have a master.  How do we deal with it?

If it simply looks human but is a construct of other material, is it alive?  How does it work?

If it appears human, but outward signs of humanity are gone, in the eyes, the voice, the expression/emotion, then more terrifying is the question:  Can it happen to us?

I am not claiming expertise on this subject.  What are your thoughts on use of automata in your writing?

 

Pontypool – How changing an old idea can work

There is a, perhaps less well known, horror movie out there known as Pontypool.  It is currently available free to Amazon Prime customers, and if you are fortunate enough to have a subscription, then I would recommend it as a movie.  As usual, this is not a review, but a basic overview and then applying it to your writing.

I am going to be referencing this movie in a couple of blogs, as it is surprising how many useful elements can be drawn from it.

Pontypool is essentially a Zombie movie, set in the rural Canadian town of Pontypool. It is heavily implied the locals are very much involved in everyone else’s business, and for news beyond gossip  the citizens turn to Grant Mazzy – Talk Radio DJ with aspirations beyond his (local) station.  It is implied he was once mainstream, and respected in the business.  Mazzy, played by Stephen McHattie, is desperately trying to matter in a situation where he doesn’t feel relevant.  And then, strange things start happening in the town.  People start acting in herds, chanting repetitive nonsensical phrases, attempting to kill and eat other townsfolk (none of this is shown on screen – I’ll talk about that in my Pontypool – A Short Story Movie Blog).

Like I said, it is a zombie movie.  However, and this is the part that had my attention, was the twist on the idea of zombie infection – the zombie virus/condition was not transmitted through fluids, bites, scratches or even airborne transmission.  It was transmitted through infected words.

Yep, I said infected words.  And despite IMDB only rating Pontypool 6.7*, I have to say, this was a brilliant idea.

Zombies, if you’ll forgive the pun, have been done to death since the 60s.  Anyone who has seen one Zombie movie knows that the contagion spreads through bites and scratches and, despite the virility of these, there are ways to defend against them.  Polearms, Armour, Guns, chopping off hands and teeth.  All are viable defences in fiction.

Pontypool has taken a genre that everyone is familiar with, everyone knows the tropes and introduced an X factor, changing mode of transmission.  And this makes the story fresh.  It brings about a new perspective on the Zombie genre.  I will talk more about its effectiveness in adding to the horror of the situation in a future blog.  For now, I just want to examine the process here.

Take a genre that everyone is familiar with, that has established rules and tropes.

Take something integral to that genre.  And then change it.

Now that I think about it, Pontypool is not the only story I have encountered that plays with genre stereotypes.

For part of my degree, when studying romance, I was required to read Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.  We were taught that a standard trope of the romance formula was that the hero or heroine falls for someone (maybe not the right someone), pursues them, all the while obstacles appear in their path (in the form of the other man/woman, or the fact that the person is not the right person for them in the first place).  The romance is essentially a quest narrative with the reward being the protagonist getting together, happily, with the right person at the end of the novel.

Rebecca doesn’t do that.  The nameless protagonist marries her love by page 50.  But this isn’t happy ever after.  Now the protagonist has to come to terms with settling down, which is nowhere near s exciting as the brief romance on the Riviera, and she is constantly compared to her husband’s deceased first wife.  How do you find love when your opponent is a ghost?  (not literally, she is dead and only her memory remains).

Mitchell & Webb, the British comedy duo, did a fantastic sketch turning this on its head.

In this case, the effect is comedic – taking the idea of a husband holding his wife to the impossible standard of his other wife – in this case, his future wife rather than his first wife.

How can we use this?  Truthfully, I have been wracking my brain about this for a while now, trying to figure out other corruptions of tropes that might serve as a starting point – and let me tell you, it hasn’t been easy!

 

Have a think about your favoured genre.

What are the accepted practices of that genre?  Are any of them often repeated?  How do they come together?  What can you change about one element?  What effect does this have?

I cannot create a list of possibilities, but lets try at least one – fantasy.

Young/childlike hero.  Possibly with a powerful artifact.  (Works for The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Sword of Shannara, The Belgariad.  Sword of Truth)

There is a mentor, possibly an old man and maybe even a wizard.  (Works for all of the above)

The Mentor may die, to motivate the protagonist (Actually, only 2 of 6.  You can increase to 4 if you change it to removal of the mentor to force the protagonist to act on their own terms.  It has been a while since I read the Belgariad or the Sword of Shannara.  I cannot recall this happening in those books).

There is an evil power from times gone past.  They might have an army (More or less true for all, though Smaug doesn’t have an army but he is an evil from times long past).

The destruction of the evil power is linked to the protagonist or their artifact. (again, works for all)

There is usually a journey involved, both geographic and metaphoric. (not really the case for Harry Potter, at least not physically, but he does grow over time throughout the stories.  In every other listed story there is a long journey involved).

Let’s put that all together.

A youthful/naive protagonist, possibly with an artifact, is induced to go on  quest by a wizard/grandfather/mentor figure.  They must travel far to find the ancient evil that now threatens, as only they protagonist/artifact are capable of defeating the evil.

Lord of the Rings plays around with the artifact idea.  Frodo Baggins must carry the Ring of Power to Mount Doom to destroy it, but in doing so he must carry it into the realm of Sauron – potentially delivering it into his hands.  So, the thing of power that can destroy the enemy is also its greatest weapon.

Harry Potter does not go on a geographic journey, he goes to school and grows that way.  What other ways might a person grow knowledgeable without having to walk longer than the Proclaimers?

Why is it only the Protagonist that can carry the artifact?  In the Sword of Shannara, it is due to Royal Blood.  In the Belgariad, if I recall, it is the same.  In the Lord of the Rings, it is the innocence of Hobbits, acting as a shield against the malevolence of the Ring of Power.  In the sword of truth it is worthiness, as determined by the mentor character. What other characteristic might make the Protagonist appropriate?  Does that change them from youthful and idealistic or naive?

Why is the mentor often portrayed as a Grandfatherly wizard?  Because to a youth, the elderly know everything that has gone before.  They might even be perceived as a bridge to the time of the evil.  They are powerful, but lack something the hero has (youth, for instance).  Maybe something else portrays some of these characteristics?  Or maybe the mentor idea has no place in your story.  If so, who/what motivates an teaches the protagonist.

Does the grandfatherly wizard have to be the mentor?  Can their role be shifted in the story?  If so, to what?

Does there have to be an artifact to destroy, or that can destroy the evil?  Could there be something else instead?

Does the Evil have to be from times gone by?  If not, what does that do to the whole quest narrative/roadmap?

 

I hope that has left you something to think about.  If you have any ideas, feel free to share them, or link me to your bestseller when it hits amazon.  Happy writing!

Zombies have fallen – A low budget movie, and a discussion on language, narrative voice, genre and respecting your reader

I was recently contacted by a friend with regards to the film Zombies have Fallen.  It is a low budget movie, with zombies in it, that has recently been advertised to me on Amazon Prime.  And none of that would have had any interest for me were it not for the fact that the writer & director is a graduate of the University I attended.

Given my allegiance to my former institution, and given that Amazon did in fact advertise it to me, I felt I should make the effort and watch the movie.

This is not a movie review.  However, so you are aware of what you are getting into if you decide to watch for academic or other reasons, here are some impressions.

The scripting is poor, the acting is wooden, and the editing could have been significantly better.  All that being said, the first 45 minutes of the film had a certain tone to it.  The movie was trying to be a hide & seek thriller, with one bounty hunter trying to kill a psychic under the protection of another.  The story just about works, and there was one element that I thought was really clever, though not executed as well as it could have been.

Then at 45 minutes, Zombies appeared in Gretna (a town down the road from where I live).  Allegiances shifted very quickly, almost as quickly as the tone of the film changed to one so far beyond black comedy; I would almost call it a farce.  (The Zombie farce was quite entertaining, to give credit where it is due).

So, let’s get to the point.

For me, the major issue with the film was the fact that it didn’t know what it was trying to be.  (I am not saying the writer/director didn’t know, only that something happened that caused a radical shift in direction that breaks the narrative flow, making it look like there was no clear idea).  Perhaps obviously, this is applicable to written work. Stories exist and, whether or not they belong in a genre, their language sets the tone of their overall impact.  Where applicable, language choice helps define genre.  And genre guides reader expectations.  Language and Genre give a story identity, it gives it a voice.  As a writer, you have the freedom to choose whatever genre and/or voice you want.  You also have a responsibility to do it properly.

I once read a piece of work by a peer.  The piece was ok.  I expected it to be a supernatural horror as it was named for a Cannibal Spirit.  There were certainly parts of the piece which felt like they were in a horror.  Unfortunately, other parts read more like the movie “The Hangover”.  I never did find out what genre the author intended, or if he even realised he what he had done.  All I know, the piece had a mixed voice and it was hampered by this.

Zombies have fallen started as a thriller.  It tried quite hard in this.  It became a ludicrous comedy.  This was entertaining but wasted any tension built up in the first part.  The title bore no relation to the film, sounding very much like a recent Gerard Butler movie (the design work looked a bit like that too).  The end result was a movie with no identity, no personality (or more appropriately, multiple personalities).  As a movie, it didn’t stand.  As 30 minutes of sillyness tacked onto the end, it was ok.

I guess what I am saying is that you need to know what you are trying to communicate, and in what voice, in order to know what language to use.  I would suspect a reader would be less forgiving of a book littered with mistakes, dull characters just to get to the last three chapters worth of silly.  A book is an investment that a reader makes.  Don’t waste the reader’s time.

Was Marvel’s Iron Fist Netflix Series Bad? A look at criticism and feedback

I am a Marvel fan, and a Netflix Subscriber.  So, when they announced Daredevil as a TV series a few years back, I was excited.  Watching the series was no let down.  It was fast paced, well cast and had a great story.  Riding this success came Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and now, Iron Fist.  Three reasonably well known heroes in the comic world, (possibly four – I never really heard of Jessica Jones early story, so if I am misrepresenting her, I apologise) brought together to form the Defenders series given the popularity of the Avengers.  Iron Fist came out on Friday, so for me, Friday was Iron Fist day.

 

I enjoyed the series, and according to Meta-Critic User reviews, and Rotten Tomato Audience reviews, so did the general viewing audience.

Critics slammed it, citing problems with the acting (Hammy), Lack of originality, pacing, and a few just said they didn’t like it.  I am not going to attack them.

You can make your own decision by watching the series and reading the criticism on the Iron Fist Metacritic Page.

I am going to examine some of it, and there is a purpose to this – bear with it.

Critics said it was unoriginal.

I suspect the rich kid, presumed dead and taken in by monks/learning a deadly skill and having an obligation sounded quite familiar.  It is the basic plot of Batman, Green Arrow and Iron Fist.  All orphaned.  All declared/presumed dead.  All super-rich.  All returning with deadly skills.  The statement that Iron Fist is unoriginal is factual.  But it ignores context.  Iron Fist, and all of the others are Comic Book characters created in a time when stealing elements of your rival’s work was common place.

For instance, take the Nova Corps and Quasar from Marvel.  Put them together and you get something resembling the Green Lantern Corps.

Take Black Panther and Moon Knight from Marvel, put them together and you get something resembling Batman.  I could probably find other examples.

Next criticism – it is hammy.  Truthfully, I didn’t notice that.  But perhaps if your normal fiction doesn’t involve a living weapon, then perhaps it is factual.  However, again, it lacks context.  It is a comic book character.  Hammy is expected, and I personally enjoyed the journey from socially awkward tramp, to socially awkward billionaire to social justice ninja, to the Immortal Iron Fist.

Pacing – The pacing was a bit slow in the early episodes.  I have to grant that.  They were necessary, to set up the main character’s attitude towards inequity.  Having read some critics, who reviewed the show over a week before general release, I learn that they didn’t see the whole thing – just the first six episodes.  I thought the first three were slow, but worth it.  Maybe critics would be kinder if they saw the whole thing?

Some critics said it managed to stand on its own merit.  Some said it didn’t.  I will now arrive at my point.

For any writer, feedback and criticism is part of the deal.  And if you are supplying feedback you can have as profound an impact on the writer as if they were hit by the Iron Fist at full power (you’re losing more than teeth to that punch…).

As a person feeding back your enjoyment is irrelevant.  (I have said before, I will say again).  You are feeding back for purpose.  You are not reading for pleasure.  So, push your bias out the window.

Then, ask yourself (and if needs be, ask the writer), what is this piece trying to accomplish?

I once was asked to feedback on a piece of writing whose title was that of a flesh eating spirit.  I read the title and thought, “Supernatural Horror.”  When I read the piece, it read like black comedy.  I had to ask, “Did you intend that?”

Once you know what the writer’s intent is, you can feedback impartially.

You don’t like sci-fi?  That is fine.  Your writer is trying to communicate a sense of civilisation falling to dystopia.  Are they achieving that?

You don’t like romance?  No problem.  The writer is trying to communicate that the protagonist is in an abusive relationship, but doesn’t realise it.  Are they achieving that?

If start thinking about the purpose of/context of the writing, you can give significantly better feedback than simply writing, “I enjoyed this,”, “You should rewrite this sentence,” or “Word repetition.”

Iron Fist – Purpose to tell the origin story of a Marvel Comic book Character with fidelity to its history, whilst tying it into the extend Marvel Netflix Universe, setting up the Defenders.  Didn’t like it?  No problem.  Did it achieve that?

Yes.

Everything else is technical, and you can judge on its own merits.

all the best.

Can’t wait for the Defenders.

Chicken Run – A Study in following your own rules

In a previous life, I was a student officer at University.  Which meant it was my job to nag the University about stuff.  And in order to be successful at nagging, I had to build relationships with University staff.  The hardest of the lot was the Vice Chancellor.  I am not sure he was entirely comfortable with folk under the age of 40.  However, I eventually managed to build that rapport and the point where I realised this was when I was on schmoozing duty at Students’ Union’s Awards Ceremony.  I was talking to the VC, and I said to him, “I have a major problem with Chicken Run, the film.”

His response was the same as everyone’s response.  “You mean that it has talking chickens?”

This was going to be a long night.

“No, Peter,”said I, for Peter was his name.  “I have no issue with that.  It is established in the narrative as a rule of the world that chickens talk to one another, that their feathers can act as fingers and it is perfectly reasonable that intelligent chickens with pre-hensile feathers can build a flying machine.”

Disclaimer – this conversation took place 2 years ago.  The words might not be exact.

This usually confuses my audience.  I have declared that there is a flaw with Chicken Run, but none of the above bothers me.  Here is why, and this is also why it should bother any writer.  Or at least be noted by any writer as something to learn from.

All of the above follow the accepted rules of the world.

Stories, in any genre have internal rules and logic. If a wizard can cast a spell, then other wizards can.  If casting a spell tires the wizard, then all wizards tire when spell casting.  And so on.  That is a simplification, but it works.  You might be skeptical if spell casting caused major exhaustion for 90% of a story, and then suddenly a wizard casts a spell without so much as a wheeze.

“No Peter, my problem with Chicken Run is that it breaks established rules of the world.  Rules of supply, demand, profit and loss.”

That was the point I lost him.  But I am persistent.

“The plot of Chicken Run revolves around a bunch of hens kept as egg laying hens by an evil Farmer’s Wife.  She has no affection for the hens.  They are simply a means to profit.  When chickens stop laying eggs, they are for the chop.  Not worth keeping them.”

Peter nodded sagely.

Disclaimer.  The sageness of the nodding may have been exaggerated.  As may have the nodding have been.

“The Evil Farmer’s wife gets frustrated with the chickens not laying eggs and costing her money.  So, she hatches a plan…”

I am quite pleased with ‘Hatches a plan’.  I am pretty sure I didn’t say that on the night.

“She buys a chicken-killing machine.  A giant metal monstrosity designed to kill all the chickens.  In order that she can sell them as pies to the pie eating public and make a profit.”

More (potential) sage nodding.

“That’s my problem with it.”

Blank look.

“Her business plan makes absolutely no financial sense!  How on earth is she going to make a profit this way?  She invests all her money into the chicken-killing machine to slaughter her entire stock of chickens, (This is a vital plot point.  It necessitates their escape plan) to make pies.  Then what?  All she has is a chicken-killing machine and no chickens.  No bank in the world will loan for that business plan! I isn’t sustainable!”

He actually chuckled at that, and confirmed that there was a certain element of logic to my thought process.

 

Ok, so I have made that story slightly more ridiculous than actually happened.  And I accept that Chicken Run is a kid’s movie, and most kids don’t necessarily think this deep when it comes to elements of plot.  But a writer should.  If your audience’s average age is greater than 5 months, things need to be logical, reasonable and follow an internal logic, even if the logic is of the fantastic.

Until next time

One Plot, Two Movies and why one of them failed at a crucial point: A study in plots

You may well have heard people say things like “There are no original stories anymore” or there are “…only seven basic plots” or something like that indicating that most literature (and I am sure there are academics out there that will challenge my use of the word in this context since I am using movies as an example – challenge away, and expect to lose) is limited as a result of what has gone before.  I write this in response to that, with a bit of theory and then apply it to a couple of mainstream movies.

The Theory Bit

To understand where I am coming from you will need to understand some terminology.  Some of it is what was taught to me by academics, and some is what I have appropriated to help with this example.  The terms are

Audience – The individual or individuals who are consuming/reading/viewing/whatevering the literature

Literature – Any form of storytelling that is recorded in some fashion, be it in a book, orally or visually

Narrative – All events in a specified sequence, in chronological order

Plot – How a storyteller chooses to assemble the events in the narrative, and present them to the audience

Story – The result of an assembled plot intersecting with any given audience.

 

So, Audience is fairly straightforward.  The readers, the viewers anyone that is going to experience the story at the end of the process.  Literature is also straightforward, however, I should note that I am hijacking the word and re-purposing it as its definition generally refers to written works, and considered of “Value”.  Value is completely subjective, so I have no problem appropriating that, and in the sense that written language is merely arbitrary symbolism given value by readers, I have no problem including any form of media.  (I will write a blog about language and symbolism, particularly referring to graphic narrative in future weeks).

Everyone has an idea about what a narrative is, and I am simply applying it to a specific viewpoint.  It is every event in a story in order, regardless of plot.  Which brings me to plot.  Plot is a construction of the producer of literature, and the producer/writer decides whether or not to keep things chronological or not, whether to omit things or not and what viewpoint they are seen from.  And finally, story happens when the audience intersects with the produced plot.  A story is a living breathing thing, it is the offspring of two parents: Either a one night stand or a lasting romance between the reader and the writer via the plot.  The Writer’s ideas feed the plot, and the audience’s experience shapes that plot into their child, their story.

In this respect you could have two identical plots, but entirely different stories.

 

One Plot, Two Movies, some spoilers

I cannot do the rest of this blog without spoilers.  If you don’t want to know anything about Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon or Avengers: Assemble, don’t read on.

I have seen both movies.  I like both movies.  They are both entertaining, though they are also not cinematic greats.  They both also have the same plot structure.

 

Prologue

The setup for the main story happens here.  In TF, it is an exciting space pursuit as an Autobot Starcruiser, the Ark, attempts to flee Cybertron and crashes on Earth’s Moon, only to be discovered by Neil Armstrong + Buzz Aldrin.  In Avengers, Loki invades a top security SHIELD base, mind controls several people (Including Hawkeye – effectively cutting his role in the film in half and more, which is why he is cut in half in the banner.  In tribute to the naff treatment of a cool character otherwise handled well), steals an item of incredible power and disappears.

Act 1

Establish the activities of the protagonists.  In TF, the Autobots have been working with the US to deal with human problems, whilst hunting down Decepticons.  And Spike is going through the horrors of job application.  In Avengers Assemble, we see what the various members of the Avengers have been doing since we saw them last, all of whom get the summons.

(I simplified)

But in essence, act 1 is about what people have been doing since we saw them last.

Act 2

Establish the Antagonist’s plot, and make the audience think, “What’s going on?”

In TF the Autobots have found the Ark and Sentinel Prime, found a few components of Sentinel Prime’s space bridge invention and realise there is some conspiracy regarding the Dark Side of the Moon.  Act 2 concludes with a dramatic highway chase, a standoff between Sideswipe/Ironhide and some unnamed Decepticon Troopers, culminating with the death of Ironhide and the revelation that Sentinel Prime had made an alliance with Megatron and had betrayed the Autobots (albeit to save Cybertron).

In Avengers, The team has assembled and Loki is in custody but we realise that his mindslaves have already vanished and are “Off the Grid” as it were.  There is a bit of a mystery as to why Loki would allow himself to be captured so easily, and more surrounding what his overall endgame is.  Act 2 ends with an assault on the SHIELD Helicarrier, Loki’s escape and the Death of Agent Coulson.

In Essence, Act 2 is the part of the plot that makes the audience think that there is more going on than is obvious, and it climaxes with an intense action scene and a fatality.

Act 3

In TF, the Autobots are banished from Earth as a result of an ultimatum made by Sentinel Prime.  They are apparently killed when their starship is destroyed attempting to leave Earth.  The Decepticons attack Chicago with an army of disposable bots, their HQ being (I kid you not) Trump Tower (where Human collaborators are Headquartered.  Make of that what you will).  Naturally, the Autobots didn’t die, and they invade Chicago and fight their way to the end of the movie.

In Avengers, the team is torn apart, literally and figuratively.  The Hulk is MIA, it is implied Thor cannot lift Mjolnir, Hawkeye has regained his memory but is sulking over the deaths caused by him whilst under Loki’s spell, and Iron Man butts heads with Captain America over their different coping mechanisms regarding the death of Coulson.  But they come together when an alien army invades New York with Loki leading.

Act 3 – weaken the protagonists, set up the antagonist in a location with seemingly unbeatable but completely unremarkable unnamed forces (I make this point to show that we aren’t suppose to care if the antagonist soldiers die or not), and then at the end destroy a big maguffin that has the knock on effect of neutralising most of the disposable baddies so that a named character can pound the villain.

 

So What?

Good question.  The answer is, everything.  The point is both films have the same plot but different stories.  And I said one of them failed at a crucial point.  That was Transformers and it was when Ironhide was killed.  In the scene he is shot by Sentinel Prime, and his body melts from the inside out.  The literary critic in me sees that as the destruction of his heart, symbolic of betrayal.  This should be a scene loaded with Pathos.

It isn’t.  It is barely referenced again in the film.  It is on par with the death of Jazz in the first movie, which is commented on in one line.

“We have lost old friends, but gained new ones.”

I heard, “Jazz is dead.  Meh.”

Ironhide, a classic Autobot dies as a result of betrayal and it isn’t worth mentioning again.  It has zero impact on the remainder of the film.  It also doesn’t help that Ironhide (and Ratchet, and Jazz, and Sideswipe) are largely ignored in the movies in favour of Prime, Bumblebee and the slackjawed-yokelbots of TF 2.  We have no opportunity to invest in the character, and when he dies it is barely a footnote in the film.

Whereas, in Avengers Assemble, when Phil Coulson dies it has a major impact on the remainder of the film.  The team can’t function until prodded by Nick Fury, using Phil Coulson’s Captain America trading cards.  We get the sorrow.  We get the pathos, and we get the resolve.  And when Iron Man challenges Loki, he intimates that he is doing it for Phil.  This is a major deal given his social inadequacy!  And lets not forget that Coulson has appeared in 3 movies by this point and at least on short on youtube.  He is given character, screentime and as a result we care about him.  I was shocked when he was impaled by Loki!

 

So, my final thoughts.

You can apply a plot to a new narrative and get a new story.  Even if the audience are the same.

Don’t underwrite/undersell secondary characters.  Readers might need to care about them someday, and that can have a profound impact.

They are both weak films in the sense that the huge unstoppable army is effectively defeated by a killswitch plot device.

Avengers Assemble is the stronger movie.  But I still like Transformers.

All the best.