Feedback – a Sharp Writing Guide

Hi there, you are most welcome here today.

Since we did editing last week, it is appropriate to now do feedback.  If you haven’t read my post about editing, then click on the blue text and have a look through first.  Done?  Good.

To get started, you will need more than one person.  Writing is often a solitary activity but it does require the help of others.  A pair is possible, a group of interested parties is better.  You will also need a piece of writing; between 500 and 1000 words is ideal.  You’ll need two copies of this, and the work you did for the editing post is most suitable, as you already have some thoughts on it. Failing that, any piece of writing of around 500 to 1000 words will do.  I recommend checking out the editing post as I have a number of suggestions on good etiquette.

Writing is a solo activity that requires the help of others

Right, you have your pieces of writing.  Pass one to the person to your left.  You will also be receiving a piece from the person on your right.  Now, everybody, write feedback on what you have received.  Don’t worry that we haven’t been through any useful information yet.  The purpose here is to just get people started and highlight if you have any bad habits.  Spend ten to fifteen minutes on this.

Ok, now that you have had a chance to practice some feedback, let’s have a look at a few things that can help you.  Because, if no one told you, giving feedback is hard.  Hopefully this post can help you a bit.

So, you have a piece of work from a friend.  They have (hopefully) told you what genre it is, and what they were trying to achieve.  Where do you start?

Read the thing in its entirety before doing anything.

It is all too easy to comment that something doesn’t make sense, and then to find that the answer you needed was actually later on in the piece and what confused you was actually a clever setup.

Avoid saying things like “I liked this piece…”

Saying you like a piece is always nice, but it isn’t particularly helpful for the writer or for you.  Firstly, like and dislike is a matter of taste.  You might have the best prose in the world in your hands, however if it is in a genre you hate, chances are you will hate it.  See the contradiction – how can you hate something that is the best prose in the world?

It is possible because you are looking for the wrong things.  The next thing I say is going to sound really harsh.

Whether you like a piece or not, whether you like a genre or not, is irrelevant to the process of feedback.  The process of feedback is to determine if the writer has made errors, to determine if the author achieved what they set out to do.  It is not to entertain the editor.  Too many times I have heard people in class saying they didn’t want to give feedback on a piece because they didn’t like the genre.  Tough.  Get over it.

Your enjoyment of a piece or genre is irrelevant when giving feedback

The writer can help the reader here by asking specific questions.  I listed some of helpful ones in my editing piece.

You are critiquing the writing, not the writer

This should be self-evident, however it is very important to re-iterate.  Your comments and feedback should be about what elements of writing don’t work.  Not what the writer did wrong.  It is a hard task giving, and receiving feedback.  Everyone is better served when feedback given is impersonal.

Be Specific

I cannot emphasise this enough.  In my many years of writing I have (thankfully not that often) received some useless feedback, and in many cases it was due to its lack of specificity.  An example,

“Don’t use clichés.”

That was a single note added at the end of my piece, with no explanation.  That was it.  Ok, I thought, I won’t.  Which ones are you talking about?  I hadn’t realised I had used any, or I would have avoided them (dare I say…) like the plague.  I didn’t know what the reader meant so their feedback was useless.

Another favourite of mine, and I get this frequently, is “Your sentences are too long”.

I do like long sentences.  I also like short sentences, and I like sentences of middling length.  So, that feedback on its own wasn’t helpful.  Were there extraneous words in it?  (In one case I can recall I checked.  I could chop one word without changing the meaning.  So I did).  Or did the reader simply not like long sentences?  Was the idea conveyed too complex for one sentence?  Would the pace have been better served by several short sentences? Certainly some sentences are too long, but in the case of feedback if you think there is a problem you need to say why.

An example of how the same feedback could have been useful is:

Avoid saying things like, ‘avoid clichés like the plague’.  It is an overused phrase and is therefore cliché.

That would have helped.  Another example would be to say:

That sentence repeats the same idea multiple times, and it is not necessary beyond the first and could be cut down a bit.

Where possible, or unless asked, avoid offering alternatives

Remember, the piece you are reading is not yours.  Your words may not be the best option when changing something.  Simply, specifically, highlight what is not working for you and why.  Then allow the writer to determine the right course of action.  Of course, if the writer asks for your opinion on what you would do, then by all means go ahead and offer any advice you have.  Just remember to check your ego at the door, it is their work not yours.

Check your ego at the door, we're doing feedback

And finally, answer any questions the writer gave you

It is good practice for a writer, once they have edited their work, to think of things they want the answers to and ask them of the people giving feedback.  If the writer has made that effort, do them the courtesy of answering.  They have made your job just a bit easier by doing that, so, help them out.

Ok, those are my major points for feedback.  There are probably other helpful things you can do, and if you know of any, please feel free to comment on this post.  I may even incorporate them into this work, since none of what I am sharing is new, ground-breaking or original.

Now, you have one copy of your work left.  Pass it to the person on your right, and receive one from your left and take 15 to 20 minutes (or as long as you need) to write feedback.  Then collect your piece, both of them if you haven’t already, and compare the two.  Maybe there won’t be many differences, because everyone has different abilities, and maybe there will be.  Compare the two, the second piece given is (hopefully) more helpful.  Though that is not to say the first feedback is not helpful, only that it may have been less polished.  Either way, you have two pieces of feedback now and that can only help you.

However, now I must share with you something incredibly important.

In my last post I mentioned there were four rules of editing and feedback, but I only covered the first three at that point.  They were:

First – Know what you (the writer) 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.

I will now tell you my fourth rule, and I believe it is probably the most important.

As the writer, you are free to ignore any feedback/advice at any time if you disagree with it, so long as you have good reason.  This rule also encompasses the rules of writing, in which I would say you are within your rights to ignore the rules of writing.  However I would not be so cavalier to do so as the rules can help inexperienced writers.  In this case my rule is about ignoring feedback and advice from others.

This seems to contradict my third rule, about being open.  It doesn’t contradict it at all.  You do need to be open to feedback, however, if after hearing your feedback and considering it you have decided it is not appropriate to make any changes based on it, then you as the writer have every right to disregard it.  And the person feeding back should not argue.  It is your piece, and sometimes the reader is wrong.  They may have missed the point of your writing, or they may have forgotten to check their ego before reading.  I have personal experience of that, where a person gave me feedback which I disagreed with.  I thanked them and explained why I wasn’t going to follow their suggestions.  They then argued with me and told me I would never be a good writer if I didn’t follow their advice.  I never sought feedback from them again.  They were not trying to help, rather they were trying to prove how clever they were.  And I still disagree with their feedback, so in that respect they failed.  Don’t fall into that trap.  If your feedback is rejected, move on.  The writer has ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of their work.  They are free to make any creative choice they choose.

You are free to disregard any feedback you recieve if you have good reason to

Ok, I think that just about wraps up what I have to say on feedback.

If this post was of use to you, don’t forget to subscribe to the blog, or even check out my hobby blog over on www.itsmorethanjustgaming.com

All the best, and see you next time

John

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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.

 

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.