Writing When Life Interrupts

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Yesterday was the two-month mark for having sent out beta manuscripts. You would think I could take a two-month vacation since I’m no longer working on my current script on a daily basis, but indie authors laugh in the face of such wussy pastimes. No. I did attempt to take a week of “down time” that ended up being only a few days of relaxation that included other writing projects. But since then, I have had the “fun” of doing things like weeding the jungle growing on the retainer wall in my back-yard and having to take my pet guinea pig to the vet multiple times because he stopped eating and was (is) starving. (It’s an on-going situation, so he’s back at the vet right now. I won’t know whether we can save him or not until I hear back from them.) An avalanche of personal, family, and life issues also chose “vacation” time to crash down on me in the past two months, so I’m actually grateful I have not been trying to relax and have fun, or I would have also ended up feeling disappointed at having lost something beyond my grasp. However, I’m grateful I haven’t had the added expectations of keeping regular “office hours” during the week. Sometimes, life just sucks. We’re stuck with days where we have to be okay with not being okay. If possible, I think it’s best if we can make space for those days. For writers and other people who work at home, who are responsible for lighting fires under their own butts when it comes to productivity, we have the space, but not the time to stay in bed and hibernate when those days hit. And people with jobs that require creative productivity can suffer greatly when reality sucks the creative energy right out of you.

One of the things I’ve been doing this week is reading articles on work flow and sifting through my notes and quotes on productivity and self-motivation. There is an ebb and flow to everything in life. Work and writing are no exception. Sure, you have to work on a schedule to make deadlines, even when working at home and being your own boss. But within that framework, sometimes you can create options better suited to the ebb and flow of your energy to minimize stress. For example, today I scheduled an hour for a scene in book 6; it ended up taking two. I’m grateful the creative flow lasted that long because stress has been killing my creativity lately. So today I stayed with my muse until stomach growls reminded me I had worked through lunch to grab that extra hour of progress. But now I’m drafting this blog article around my Cup Noodles, and I can tell my creative energy is ebbing again. So, I’m looking at my planner and contemplating whether I can alter what’s next. Normally, I would be doing editing tasks after giving my best energy to creative tasks. But only two of my beta readers have returned feedback so far, so I don’t want to start doing sixth-revision edits on Dragonling until I’ve received a “consensus” on the overall content. Then I can get nit-picky about any individual typos or technical concerns they found, one feedback list at a time. So, in lieu of editing, here are some ways I push myself to keep working, even when life sucks and the energy ebb is low.

1. Lower the bar on your expectations. If your to-do list is normally 10 or more items, prioritize what absolutely MUST be done today, then pick one task — only one. Set a timer, and do it for five minutes. If you’re good to go after five minutes, do 10 more minutes. Keep building in small increments of time like that until you have finished the task or at least made reasonable progress. Progress may feel like a snail’s pace, but in tough times doing something is better than doing nothing. As a good friend once told me, “Even the mighty elephant can take only one bite at a time.” No matter how big your project, it still must be broken down into small steps. The smaller the step, the more likely you are to feel you’ve accomplished something and keep going.

2. Pick a task that is mechanical. In other words, it shouldn’t tax your critical thinking skills too much when you’re already not thinking clearly. It should be a task that’s more routine or relaxed. When writing this article’s first draft, I accepted it was just a draft. And all first drafts are usually awful. I knew it had to be revised anyway before publishing, so as long as I had the outline and gist of what I wanted to say, I let go of fretting about trying to make a first draft as perfect as possible. Today I’m able to think more clearly, so you are reading the better-organized, proofed, revised article. 🙂 … Some other examples might include answering email, looking at articles bookmarked for later reading, or researching something relative to a question I noted about the next book’s content.

3. Pick a task that isn’t emotionally taxing. Unfortunately, my to-do list yesterday included preparing some divorce paperwork and force-feeding my piggy again, which he hates, so that’s frustrating for both of us. (No, the guinea pig is not part of my “job”, but since I work at home I have to juggle publishing tasks with taking care of my fur babies just as I did with my human babies when they were young. In the case of a guinea pig who isn’t eating, that means syringe feeding him a crushed-pellet-and-baby-food slush every couple of hours to keep his digestive tract working. Guinea pigs always have to have food going through their gut or they could get very sick and could die. Since we don’t know why he stopped eating in the first place, keeping his gut working full-time is the only thing I can do for him until the vet can sedate him for the full exam, x-rays, and blood work tomorrow to see what’s going on.) Feeding my piggy isn’t optional; his health and possibly his life depends on it. Working on the divorce paperwork, however, could have been subbed for something like cleaning a corner of my office to discard things I won’t be taking with me when I move. If that’s still too emotionally taxing, maybe I could swap “divorce/move” tasks with the art project I need to finish by tomorrow evening, and save the divorce tasking for another day. Since colouring actually soothes anxiety and depression, and since colouring isn’t as taxing as sketching and detailing, finishing the art assignment might be the best choice to keep productivity going in spite of feeling emotionally drained.

4. Meditate or nap for 10-15 minutes. I am a huge advocate of meditation because it has made such a big difference in my life ever since I started doing it on a daily basis. I always start my mornings with meditation now. But as the day progresses, my eyes can start burning staring at the computer screen all day. Or my attention can drift off toward news, social media, You Tube, iTunes …. Or sometimes it’s just receiving bad news that can flip the day upside down so focusing on the task at hand suddenly seems more exhausting than running to the top of Mt. Fuji. When everything comes to a dead stop, it’s time to shut down, set my alarm, and close my eyes for a few minutes of nothing but the breath. Science backs meditation’s ability to lower anxiety, help with depression, increase focus, and improve mood. Worst case scenario, I move to my recliner in the living room, set my alarm, and nap. Research has shown that both meditation and short “power” naps have restorative effects on the body and brain. Naps shouldn’t take longer than 20 minutes, though, or they end up counter-productive, leaving you sluggish and groggy. The goal is to rest and reset, not enter REM. The recommended amount of time for a mid-day nap when you have to keep going is 10-15 minutes.

This is how I survive the work day on days when I have trouble pulling it together. I will add that sometimes music can help reset things, as long as it doesn’t interfere with concentration. I realize that right now I am fortunate to be my own boss and work at home so I can have flexible office hours when it comes to bad days. But sometimes that means making up for taking a needed break during the afternoon by working through dinner, skipping Netflix in the evening, or staying up a little later than usual to complete that day’s tasks. However, these principles of productivity can apply to other kinds of work, as well, depending on individual circumstances. What’s nice about being a writer is that even bad events can turn into good plot material, sway the outcomes of certain encounters, or provide character fodder, which not only helps you de-stress, but might improve your story in the long run. (*Ahem* I may or may not be guilty of throwing a frustration or argument or two at my writing projects after a stressful day. Under such circumstances, using bad days as story fodder may or may not be rather cathartic, too.) 😉

Book Review: Of Snow and Whiskers

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Of Snow and Whiskers by Andrea Brokaw

Book: Of Snow and Whiskers
Series: Werestory, Book 2
Author: Andrea Brokaw
Genres: YA, supernatural, adventure, romance

 

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“When the moon is full, Rina Andreyushkina is a snow leopard. In feline form, she is full of grace and power. But when the moon sets, things are harder. Now shy and awkward in her human skin, Rina faces a series of new challenges. Her best friend has been suspended for bullying, leaving Rina by herself for the first time in her life. She must learn who she is on her own and whether she likes this person. Complicating things further, the best friend’s would-be betrothed comes to Rina for help preparing to fight his way out of his arranged marriage. No stranger to being a political pawn, Rina agrees to train him even though it puts her most important relationship in serious jeopardy. And as though this were not stress enough, Rina befriends the notorious and widely disliked new boy, something the entire school notices.

With all this going on, when will Rina find time to watch her favorite anime?!”

Notes of Interest:

This is the second book in the Werestory series by Andrea Brokaw. The first is Of Fur and Ice, which I reviewed here: https://badcatink.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/book-review-of-fur-and-ice/.

I recommend that you read the first book in the series, as it gives some background for the second. However, the first book has a different set of protagonists than the second, so the second could possibly be read as a stand-alone. This second book takes a few of the supporting characters from the last book and puts them under the spotlight for a plot of their own. But you will see familiar faces from the first story, too.

What could have made it better for me:

There were a few technical errors that pulled me out of the story, but those were minor.

What I liked about it:

The story this time focuses on Rina, friend to Simone and Troy, two antagonistic characters from the previous book. I really like this choice of character because Rina was the silent, submissive BFF for the Queen Bee of the snow leopard clique in their high school, but over the course of this story, she develops courage and sort of comes into her own personality to make her own choices, regardless of peer pressure. When the words “toxic relationship” get thrown around, it usually has to do with girl/boy love interests. But this story highlights a case where it is a girl’s best friend that dominates and acts abusively toward her. Because my personal history involved a few toxic relationships, it was a really interesting, and sadly rather accurate, portrayal of how submissive behavior so often makes excuses for the domineering behavior of friends, partners, or family members in order to not cause trouble, or in order to not lose that relationship by raising a complaint. Because it’s hard to draw the line between actually loving someone so much that you would put up with bad treatment, and being dependent on someone so much that you would put up with bad treatment. This friend-to-friend angle for that kind of relationship isn’t normally something focused on in books. So, I found that to be rather unique.

This book explores diversity in that Rina is also bi-sexual. And as she reflects on her past and present interests in terms of love interests, her dual orientation has the brief potential to complicate matters with others who don’t have a full understanding. The fact that this is a main character attribute and conversation topic is a plus for the book, in my opinion.

Another thing I loved about this story was the unique spin it gave to Native American skin-walker legends and therianthropy (which is a shape-shifting identity, for those to whom the term is new). I can’t really say much more than that about these topics without spoiling the plot, but I want to raise the fact that it’s not something commonly found in supernatural books, even among books about the most common shape-shifters, like werewolves and such. Brokaw’s take on fairies is also different and refreshing. I always love to see new interpretations of old mythologies.

The story picks up soon after first one finishes, so most of the action takes place on the were-school campus, but the focus this time is on the snow leopard clowder, rather than the wolf pack. Seth has challenged his arranged engagement to Simone. Troy the all-were is still present. And kind-hearted Rina is attempting to find her place in the new order of the upheaval because she’s not the type to make enemies or hold grudges. She befriends Troy, and starts training Seth for the Challenge, but has to deal with a very unforgiving Simone. Clowder politics complicate matters further, and another all-were is discovered near campus grounds. The safety of the students in the school, the future of two snow leopard clans, and Rina’s circle of friendships are at risk.

The style of writing is a down-to-earth, first-person, present-tense narrative with lots of tactile “feels” to it. So, the reader progresses through the events with Rina in a way that I think most people could immerse in or relate to on some level.

Recommendation:

Fans of shape-shifting stories will probably find the snow leopard angle on this theme interesting and fun. This story would be entertaining for readers of all ages, in my opinion. 🙂

What Makes a “Good” Character?

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Great Teacher Onizuka is a Japanese shōnen manga written and illustrated by Tooru Fujisawa.

This is a revision of an article I initially published on my previous blog several years ago, in which I questioned what we mean when we say a character is “good”.

In that article, I introduced everyone to the main character of Great Teacher Onizuka. If you are familiar with Japanese pop culture in any way, you might already be well acquainted. My introduction to this series (which was originally published as manga, but later adapted to anime, TV live-action, and film due to its enormous popularity) was in Sapporo during Yuki Matsuri. We had already seen everything there was to see of the ice sculptures and shows during the day, and we needed to warm up again before hitting the night festivities. While lounging in the hotel room, I was flipping channels to see what Hokkaido TV had to offer, when I found the TV series. I had heard of the manga and anime, but I missed the original airing of the live action TV show, so I was delighted to run into reruns like this.

If you’re not familiar, let me briefly explain this is a high school drama/comedy. Imagine, if you will, a former member of the Japanese mafia (yakuza) wanting to become a teacher. He was a trouble maker in school, has a police record, and took 7 years to complete his education at a not so reputable university. He didn’t pass the teacher’s exam, but a private school is looking to hire. So he goes for the interview and is rejected by the head teacher, but then is hired by the school director after she witnesses how he handles an unexpected disciplinary incident while he’s there. She hires him on one condition: he is to carry his resignation in his coat pocket at all times and be ready to hand it over if he ever hurts one of the students. Then, unknown to him, she gives him the worst class in the school to see if he can straighten them out.

This disciplinary crisis that occurred while he was present involved two expelled students chasing the head teacher with a baseball bat and threats. But he ended up siding with the students after the head teacher called them trash and gave Onizuka permission to rough them up because they would only continue to cause trouble if they were let go. Needless to say, using karate on the head teacher stunned the students, the director, and everyone else witnessing the incident, but his point was clear. It’s because of adults like that, that kids fail. And if that’s the way this school was going to be, he didn’t want any part of it.

Onizuka often resorts to violence like that to solve his problems. He is a pervert, too, always watching adult videos, always trying to get a peek at the girls’ panties beneath their school skirts. He’s a slob. He’s a slacker. He’s reckless and takes unnecessary risks with other people’s lives and his own. To say he is an unconventional teacher is an understatement. At a glance, and even after watching the series, one might come away from this character thinking, “How in the world is this guy regarded as such a hero?”
Many times, people expect characters, protagonists in particular, to be good role models. The thing is, often good role models are not good characters. I forget who said it, but a quote comes to mind. To paraphrase: “A man’s flaws are often the most interesting thing about him.” When we read stories, we expect them to be interesting, not necessarily realistic. Onizuka might be a truly horrible concept for a teacher in real life. But in fiction, he is one hell of an interesting character. Why else would we find ourselves cheering for someone like this while also cringing at his actions?

Here are some thoughts on the matter.

 

1. It’s fiction.
All of fiction is fantasy, even the “slice of life” type, literary genre dramas. Romance is fantasy. Cop shows are fantasy. Even horror and tragedy are fantasy; they just don’t end with happily ever afters. But ALL of fiction has the potential to offer us something that’s unlikely to happen in real life. Moralization is not the point of fiction. Fiction can teach us, but its primary purpose is simply to entertain us while reflecting the best and worst attributes among humanity. Fiction is the study of the human condition, good and bad. So before anyone starts wagging fingers at Onizuka-sensei for being a horrible role model who unrealistically inspires everyone around him to greatness, step back and get a grip on reality. Remember, we’re talking about a fictional fantasy here. For better or worse, the impossible becoming possible touches something in our souls. In fiction, anything is possible … and that is usually why we enjoy reading it.

2. Not all protagonists are meant to save the world.
Think about it. Most protagonists actually do end up as heroes. It’s very stereotypical when you realize just how many times in fiction our world has been saved by good-looking people with positive attitudes, strong morals, and the blessings of the gods. Ironically, many readers relate better with characters who have flaws because perfect people are unrealistic. The reluctant hero, the clutzy hero, and the anti-hero have their stereotypes, too, but sometimes it’s refreshing change of pace to watch the cursed ones struggle with their flaws to find unconventional ways of solving problems. Raising a lowly character to an “I did it in spite of myself!” status usually forces at least some dynamic character growth, but even that isn’t always good. Real humans don’t always have the right answers, either. We disappoint each other quite frequently. But somehow we muddle through, learning from both positive and negative experiences, and life goes on. Fiction is not about creating role models, unless that is the intent of the author. Fiction is about pulling the reader into the lives of the characters so they can tell their tales about what happened to them. Readers may disagree vehemently with the decisions some characters make, but the characters must be allowed to make their own decisions because it’s their story. Readers are not reading about themselves in the protagonist’s role … unless it’s a choose-your-own-adventure novel. So, readers and viewers of fiction should not expect fictional characters to reflect their own personal morality. Onizuka often chooses the wrong methods to solve his problems, and they only create more problems. But presenting himself as the perfect role model is not his goal. Helping his students realize “there is no practice for real life” is what motivates him, and he will do whatever he thinks it takes to save each and every one of his homeroom delinquents, even if that means hanging them from rooftops, forcing them to quit school, and allowing bullies to beat the crap out of them.

3. Redemption is a powerful thing.
For a “bad” character to be redeemed in the eyes of the reader, he has to do something right. He has to want to be good, even if he repeatedly fails. He has to have some likable qualities to make us think he’s worth fighting for. For Onizuka-sensei, he has a big heart. He is friendly, funny, often childish, and in many ways childishly naive. He realizes he screwed up when he was younger, so he sincerely wants to prevent other kids from making the same mistakes he did. Now he wants more than anything to be a teacher. He doesn’t hold grudges or pick on people he considers to be at a disadvantage, but he’s crude and firm in a manner that opens “respectable” people’s eyes to their own despicable behavior. He’s optimistic, even when things have gone horribly wrong for him. And as much as he dwells on sex, he’s still a virgin because he’s saving his first time for someone he loves. He even has a special condom marked for the occasion that he frets over when intrusive people get their hands on it and tease him about it. Though he struggles with exam scores, when pushed he studies hard. When all is said and done, he is literally willing to sacrifice his position, even his life, for his students. He not only ends up inspiring each of his students to greatness, but he ends up teaching their parents and his fellow teachers to value the opportunities they have to enlighten the lives of these kids.

 

As a reader I prefer tragic heroes. I find their stories more interesting. As a writer, I’ve discovered how extremely difficult it is to find the right balance when creating protagonists who are meant to be darker characters. Trizryn, the main male protagonist from my Elf Gate series, is definitely in the anti-hero camp, but I’m always looking for ways to inject a little of this into the other characters, as well. I don’t want to write strictly “good” characters, or strictly “bad” characters; I get bored with the predictability of those archetypes. So, Trizryn is the kind of person who will give his life for someone to protect them if he feels they are worth saving. But if you were to threaten whoever he is protecting, he won’t hesitate to destroy you. Is this kind of protagonist common? Yes, actually. But they are not what usually comes to mind when you think of attributes of a hero. The tragic monster, the sympathetic villain, the dark hero … self-contradictory archetypes are often bad role models, but often make the most interesting, “good” characters in fiction.

Author Inspirations: Anne Rice

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In browsing my archives for inspiration about what to write about this week, I noticed my “Authors” category only had one entry. And that entry wasn’t about any particular author, but about censorship — an article which referenced some favourite authors, but it wasn’t about them or their impact on my writing. Growing up, I fan-girled over two things: musicians and writers. So, for today’s blog, I’d like to throw out some thoughts and gratitudes for an author who was a very deep inspiration to me: Anne Rice.

I was late coming to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series. Though I have always been a fan of stories with vampires in them, and vampires in general, I was just more interested in other things at the time these books were on the rise. I remember when the movie Interview with the Vampire was at its height of popularity, and had seen the Queen of the Damned movie on TV more than once. The books were always on my TBR list … which is huge. I mean, half — no, most — of the books on that list never actually get read because I simply don’t have the time to devour books as an adult the way I used to in high school or college. So, it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I picked up my first Anne Rice book. And it so-happened to be The Vampire Lestat. :3

Like with so many other Rice fans, this book was instant love for me. The character, the history, the prose, the sheer depth of the philosophical pondering of the meaning of life, death, and the existence of God blew me away. This is the story that took my love of all things vampire from an interest to a passion. Since then, I have acquired every book in her Vampire Chronicles collection, and even bought a signed copy of Prince Lestat. This might not seem like a big deal to some people, but I have only three other author-autographed books in my entire library, so it’s not something I usually go out of my way to purchase.

Rice’s vampire books are so meaningful to me, partly because I can relate to her sentiments regarding questioning the whole existence of God, Heaven, Hell, angels, demons, etc. We both came from a very religious background, but then came to a point where we felt as if the politics and mythos of the church had taken a drastically different course from the teachings of Jesus. She has stated that Lestat’s quest for God was always about her own quest for God, particularly after the passing of her little daughter. She wrote the Vampire Chronicles while coping with that tragedy. Years after giving up her faith, she returned to it, saying she would never write another vampire book, and she focused on writing about the life of Jesus, instead. However, the church’s political stances on things like gay rights still bothered her, so she broke from the church again, saying that while she did believe in God, she could no longer call herself a Christian because she could not support the church’s teachings and politics on such matters. She has returned to writing vampire novels, along with other new supernatural material, and now even has a TV series based on the Vampire Chronicles in the works, which I am excited about.

So, her writing simultaneously does two things. On the one hand, her characters are deeply introspective, using their own trappings in life (and death) to try to figure out this thing we call life and call out the lies where they see them. On the other hand, the characters’ conclusions will challenge readers to examine their own beliefs and faith on such matters. Memnoch the Devil, for example, presents a view of Purgatory and Hell that is shockingly similar to my own exploratory thinking of what demons are and how the afterlife might be understood. Memnoch is probably her most controversial book in the series because of that exploration into the nature of demons and Hell.

This is all Rice’s personal, fictitious take on religious mythos, of course. While some classics like Dante’s Inferno and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress are fiction with didactic intent (the intent to teach … and in these cases the subject taught is religious morality) — no one should ever read fiction with religious themes mistaking them for theological study material. This should especially not be done to point out how “misguided” some celebrity authors are. To take a work of fiction literally misses the point of it being fiction! So, I’m sorry to have to add this cautionary note, but I know people who have gleefully used books from the Harry Potter series as examples of “real” witchcraft to condemn both the practice and the books. And you just can’t do that with fiction!

Religious morality or conviction or guilt is not the point of Rice’s books. Rice tells stories about fictitious characters in a fictitious universe where supernatural vampires are real, but their quests for truth represent Everyman’s quests for truth. Nothing more. Every person on this planet has at some point questioned what it is that he or she truly believes, or questioned why the universe is the way it is. Are we missing something important because it’s been buried under centuries of religious, political, and pop culture lies? This is an important question for the human psyche. And one of the reasons I admire Rice’s writing is that she’s not afraid to ask the difficult questions and explore the possibilities of some really tough answers.

I have corresponded with Rice briefly a few times on her Facebook page — which I must say she manages better than I imagine any author with such a diverse readership could. Every day she asks questions of or presents inquisitive articles to her fans — sometimes relative to her writing, sometimes relative to current events, sometimes philosophical. On one occasion, she asked the “People of the Page”: “Theological question: is there any theory of Christ’s Atonement, or of our living in “a fallen world” or living in “a broken world” that does not take the story of Adam and Eve and the talking serpent literally? In other words, are these most influential Christian ideas all based on a literal reading of Genesis? What are your thoughts?”

Some of her comments to other people in regards to their answers included: “I continue to maintain that the idea of a broken or fallen world, indeed an entire Christian worldview is based on a literal reading of Adam and Eve and the talking serpent. And this is not a good basis for an entire religion.” And … “… that is all very beautiful poetry, and it is typically Catholic. But it doesn’t answer my question and it does not satisfy. —– The difficulty remains: don’t all theories of bloody atonement depend on taking Genesis literally? If they do not, then what is the foundation on which they are based? Atonement for what? —– Reconciliation with what? Why? The Pope can write beautiful poetry forever and publish book after book of it. But if Christianity is based on a series of lies, that has to be dealt with. —– My question remains: what is atonement based on if not a literal reading of Adam and Eve? If not for their sin, then for what is Christ atoning? And why is atonement necessary?”

This is where I entered the conversation: “Anne, this may not be the time or place, but may I ask your opinion on a question? This is something I have never received a satisfactory answer on from any of the religious people I know. And this is what, to me, defines the core of the …Christian faith. If the blood of Jesus is the only thing that can wash away sin, and he died an innocent sacrifice (though sacrificing innocent people and animals is usually frowned upon as a sin), how can the death of an innocent (which is generally considered murder in a court of law) make sin go away? In other words, how does a wrong act cleanse a wrong? How does an innocent death make anything right? To go by that example, I would have to kill my innocent daughter in order to forgive the guilty one that broke the lamp. Why not just forgive? Why a blood sacrifice? Is it because the magic in the blood washes away the magic that is sin? Because clearly a belief in magic is involved, or this question wouldn’t even be up for debate. Maybe there is a link between these questions I seek, and your questions on taking Genesis literally.”

She responded: “…, I am not the one to answer your very challenging and interesting question: because i don’t believe in the theory of the atonement through innocent blood. I think it is something made up by theologians. But I think you are certainly right to ask and keep asking. The whole idea of bloody Atonement for me is outdated and unconvincing.”

This is a sample of the intellect, honesty, and courage that shapes her writing, and one reason why her fans love her so.

Besides her own writing, I also admire Rice for her advice on writing in general. She’s always been supportive and encouraging of indie authors and other authors who are doing their own thing. “There are no rules in this profession. Do what is good for you. Read books and watch films that stimulate your writing. In your writing, go where the pain is; go where the pleasure is; go where the excitement is. Believe in your own original approach, voice, characters, story. Ignore critics. HAVE NERVE. BE STUBBORN.” (Advice to new writers, 2009) She recognizes that not every book is for everyone, and supports the differences in genres and styles because of that. She has even taken on the bullies of the book review world — readers who give spiteful, unfair reviews of books they didn’t like, to the point of attempting to destroy the careers of their author victims. Her interest in negativity on the Internet via anonymous criticism has inspired my own interest in the matter, but if anything like that comes to her page, she shuts it down immediately. She wants respectful discussion of tough subjects, not hate-filled rants filled with contempt.

So, Anne Rice inspires me not only to think deeply through my story content (being brave enough to speak Kethrei’s blunt challenges to the religious leaders of his time, pursuing a theme like the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, or presenting political themes that are scarily familiar with what’s actually happening in current events in some ways), but also to think deeply about how I speak my mind as an author (How would I handle great disparity between readers if they argued? Would I be willing to lose readers for the sake of maintaining my integrity, since I can’t please everyone?), and to keep asking myself the difficult questions about “life the universe and everything” in my personal life, as well. I’m so grateful that I did finally get my hands on that first book and followed it to the rest of her creative works. I’m thankful to have those books in my personal library, and to have someone like her to look to as a mentor.

Derivative Works And How to Stop Cringing at Them

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Image Source: Pixabay, Mysticsartdesign.

A derivative work is ANY subsequent work that was based upon an original. That means film or TV adaptations of books are derivative works. It means fan fictions are derivative works. And it means sequels and prequels where multiple authors are hired to contribute to a long-running series are derivative works. That last one might not be as widely recognized as such, but the fact that Agatha Christie is continuing to write Agatha Christie mysteries long after her death means a lot of professional fans are given legal copyright allowances under contract to continue her legacy with additional works based on the originals. Ditto for the Nancy Drew series, Star Trek series, Marvel comics, and so on. The only squeeze room for debate on this matter is if we’re talking about the original author reusing her own world and characters to create spin-offs. In such a case, the derivative work will not be reinterpreted through someone else’s vision. The original creator is in control. But the original work is still being referenced to create anything new borrowed from it.

So, why it is important for book, film, and TV lovers to recognize and appreciate derivative works AS derivative works?

When I was an English major in college, I took a Film Literature class. I also had to take Drama 101. These courses were often considered somehow less academic than the more traditional classes on Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, Linguistics, etc. (Probably because they are visual format, rather than linguistic: which I wrote about in a previous article on book snobbery.) But all forms of literature, including screenplays and stage plays require writers. Screenplays and plays can be just as deep as books, emotionally and creatively, depending on the circumstances under which they are adapted. And both books and film have limitations and advantages according to their nature.

Our syllabus for Film Lit was comprised of reading a novel, watching the movie based on the novel, then writing a comparison essay. We watched a few extra movies that were stand-alone or turned into books based on the films (which is less common, but occasionally happens). I learned that derivative works should be reviewed differently from original works, especially if they are different media formats, because there are very important differences between the two.

1) Understand the very fact that the derivative work is NOT the original makes it DIFFERENT BY DEFAULT.
People who expect movies to be like their original books are often automatically disappointed and highly critical — sometimes before they even see the final product. But to compare the product of a single author’s viewpoint and character creation to an attempt to recreate that same product by coordinating the various visions and talents of a director, producer, any number of actors, and stage and costume designers is an unbalanced comparison. Interpretations can get close to the original, but they will never be exactly what you expect because you, the director, the actor, and the author are all different people with different imaginations and different interpretations. If you ask 30 people to draw a bird, you will get 30 different-looking bird drawings because each person’s vision and talents are unique. Most will probably look nothing like a real bird. And an oil painting of that bird would look very different from a digital print. No amount of comparisons will turn that digital print into an oil painting or a real bird. To expect a film to be EXACTLY like you imagined the book is unrealistic.

2) Books will never in a million years BE films.
This underscores the first point, but more directly why. Films should be judged by film standards, not book standards. Books are linguistic; they use language to spark the reader’s imagination. If you’re a good reader, you probably enjoy books. If you’re not a good reader, does that mean you can’t enjoy good literature? Of course not. Some people are visual learners more than they are linguistic learners. (By visual I means “spatial”, not “able to see printed words on a page”.) Film and stage productions are collaborative visual and auditory efforts that spark the physical senses. Books and films are very different experiences, and that is as it should be. In books, if you skim descriptions, you might miss some of the atmosphere. But in film everything from lighting to camera angle to sound effects must be taken into consideration to be sure the atmosphere is credible. Books may or may not give detailed or vague descriptions of character faces, voices, and body language, according to whether it’s important to the scenes. But in film, actors have to convey all those things all the time to bring a character to life. And then there are props and costumes. In a book, we don’t usually care about the footwear of a Medieval knight on a battlefield. But in film, if a Medieval knight is wearing sneakers, someone somewhere will notice, and films automatically get marked down for little things like that, never mind the big offenses.

3) Attention spans and time are everything.
Another difference between books and their visual derivative works is how much time the author or producer has to tell the story and how much attention the reader or viewer is willing to give. The most obvious difference is that most people can’t read an entire book in one sitting, yet films can’t last longer than 2 hours average or people get restless and need bathroom breaks. TV shows, even shorter — 30 minutes to an hour. Why is this? The eye has an attention span of about 3-5 seconds. When you are reading, your eye continuously moves across the page, so it has less of a chance to get bored … unless the story you’re reading is more stale than week-old bread. But with film, that camera has 3 seconds to show you what’s important before your eyes start looking for something else to look at. If you watch old films or TV shows, you’ll notice the camera angles are more straightforward and change less often than they do today. Because today we know the change has to be continual, like scanning words on a page, or the eye gets bored. Loss of visual interest kills attention spans for story-telling. (I suppose the same could be said of audio books if the narrator reads in a monotone or if the eyes have nothing to look at while listening.) Books allow readers to mark a page and put it down when they need breaks. Since authors know this, books can be quite lengthy and epic in nature. With film and TV, however, you must keep the viewer’s attention for the entire story being told at that time. Pause buttons aside (which are not available for stage productions), that means you have to be able to clip the story into shorter, more quickly digested scenes. You can still stretch it over the length of a series for a TV season and get a lot of detail. But films have to cut everything that isn’t essential. They often have the daunting task of making an entire year pass in only 2 hours … or making two people who just met fall in love as if they’d been together forever. Books don’t have those kinds of restraints, which is probably why most people prefer books. They seem to go deeper, and often they do. But depth is not the same thing as length, and that is what must be remembered with reviewing film and TV and stage.

4) There is nothing new under the sun … unless we paint it purple.
All plots ever written have been written before. All plots ever written boil down to only three plots: man against man, man against nature, and man against himself. But that’s boring, right? So, we mix it up a little. What if we say man against woman, dog against cat, drug addict against his addiction? What if the dog is lost, and the cat is trying to confuse him so he can’t find his way home? Is that different from the dog plotting against the cat to take over the house? Yes. Suddenly we have something that feels brand new by changing the details. So, if we enjoy Romeo and Juliet, why not jazz it up a little to make West Side Story? Tragic stories of star-crossed lovers in forbidden romances have been told for many centuries in many cultures, and nothing is going to stop people from writing that same old plot. But they will keep changing the details to make it feel fresh and different. So, if “Beauty and the Beast” starts as a centuries-old folk tale, but is then adapted and adapted and adapted (to death), we will keep looking for new and different ways to enjoy this story. Because it is timeless. We don’t have to like every version produced. (Honestly, the thought of a US version of a female Watson to pair with Sherlock Holmes drove me away from watching that series the minute I heard about it. How *could* they?! John Watson is a British man, why would they change that?Why do an American version of the BBC series Being Human, while we’re at it? It’s not like there’s a language barrier; leave it alone!) But it’s a little late to complain about why someone would redo something rather than creating something new, or why they would redo it the same way, or why they would redo it differently. Each similarity brings the comfort of familiarity. Each difference gives us an alternate universe to explore. This is not a recent phenomenon. This is not something that makes a purple sun any less interesting on another world. … Or our own. I mean, WHAT IF the sun suddenly turned purple? Is that really so bad? As ludicrous as it sounds, it’s man against nature (or man, or himself), trying to figure out why he sees a different sun. (Btw, I watched both the American and the BBC versions of Being Human and liked them both, but for different reasons because they intentionally gave it a different plot and character twist based on the original BBC concept.  Maybe I should give American, female Watson another shot? *shrug*)

I recently heard the Witcher novels and games were going to be adapted to a TV series on Netflix. On the one hand, I was so stoked! :3 I love the Witcher series! On the other hand, there’s this little voice in my head saying, “Please don’t suck, please don’t suck, please don’t suck.” … Fans of anything in the literary or gaming world can probably relate, if not for Witcher then something else. So, I offer this bit of advice for fans everywhere who cringe when they hear that their favourite books are being turned into movies or TV series. You are right. The derivative work will never BE the original. Nor are they trying to replace the originals. But if you can be flexible and learn to enjoy derivative works for what they are (something based on the original that in no way can possibly be the original), you will find derivative works a lot more enjoyable because you’ve shifted your expectations to a more realistic standard of judgment. 🙂

Book Review: The Conquering Dark

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Book: The Conquering Dark
Series: Shadow Revolution, Book 3
Author: Clay and Susan Griffin
Genres: fantasy, steampunk, Neo-Victorian, Gothic horror, adventure

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“A thrilling new Victorian-era urban fantasy for fans of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, and the Sherlock Holmes movies featuring Robert Downey, Jr.

The Crown and Key Society face their most terrifying villain yet: Gaios, a deranged demigod with the power to destroy Britain. To avenge a centuries-old betrayal, Gaios is hell-bent on summoning the elemental forces of the earth to level London and bury Britain. The Crown and Key Society, a secret league consisting of a magician, an alchemist, and a monster-hunter, is the realm’s only hope—and to stop Gaios, they must gather their full strength and come together as a team, or the world will fall apart. But Simon Archer, the Crown and Key’s leader and the last living magician-scribe, has lost his powers. As Gaios searches for the Stone of Scone, which will give him destructive dominion over the land, monster-hunter Malcolm MacFarlane, alchemist extraordinaire Kate Anstruther, gadget geek Penny Carter, and Charlotte the werewolf scramble to reconnect Simon to his magic before the world as they know it is left forever in ruins.”

Notes of Interest:

This is the third book in the Shadow Revolution series. The first is Crown and Key, which I reviewed here: https://badcatink.wordpress.com/2016/08/12/book-review-crown-and-key/ . The second is Undying Legion, which I reviewed here: https://badcatink.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/book-review-undying-legion/ . This third book closes the trilogy.

As I stated in the previous review, I chose to read this series because of how much I enjoyed the Vampire Empire series by the Griffins. The third book in this series was closure for the first two, obviously, but it has all of the same good qualities as the previous two.

What could have made it better for me:

As with the previous book in this series, there was nothing of note that pulled me out of the story. All the basics I look for when considering “stars” to award were there: good technical work on grammar and elements of composition, well-developed “living” characters, no plot holes or burdens in style that damage the ability to suspend disbelief, etc. So, I present this book free of warning labels. 🙂

What I liked about it:

While writing this review, I realized I was having trouble coming up with new ways to describe the third volume in the series separately from the first two. (In fact, parts of this review are copy/paste sections from the previous reviews.) That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing. It means there is a sense of continuity, which is very necessary in any series. I was a little confused at first because my mind was on the characters that the second book ended on, and this book seemed to be heading somewhere completely different, but it did pull everything together in the end.

Characterization and plot were well-defined and action-packed, as usual. The characters are turning into a real family unit in this volume, but they also undergo some transformations as individuals: Simon having to cope without his magic, while Kate advances her alchemical skills and Penny invents new mechanical weaponry; Malcolm growing a soft spot amid all those bristles, while Charlotte and Imogen make progress on stability. And then there are the questions of loyalty surrounding Nick, Ash, and several other minor characters, as to whether they will ultimately play into the hands of the demi-god Gaios and his plans for revenge. Without knowing who to trust, they must find a way to fix Simon’s magic and fix their inability to access the portals before Gaios gets his hands on the Stone of Scone to destroy London.

Wit among dialog and circumstance wins big points from me when it comes to enjoyment of literature. I think my favourite line in the book belonged to roguish Simon after enduring a glamour spell cast upon him by his old friend and mentor Nick. Upon seeing himself in the mirror, he said, “Could you have made me any uglier? Was a leper beyond your ability?” And you can just feel his dismay at actually not being attractive for the probably the first time in his life. So, little inserts like that can go a long way for me in making a read enjoyable.

These books have a distinct “superheroes save the world” feel to them … but blended with horror and a steampunk style. The premise of the third book reminds me a little of the Dr. Who spin-off series Torchwood, in that after everything that has already happened, you end up with this task force of magicians and supernatural creatures whom the king can call upon to take care of unusual threats of a dark nature that endanger the crown, the citizens at large, or national security. It’s a good premise, and I tend to enjoy seeing it explored. Whether or not we see more from this particular task force as Princess Victoria comes of age, remains to be seen, but the outcome of their endeavors lends itself to being open to future possibilities. The ending is bittersweet, but offers satisfying closure for the entire set. I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers. 🙂

Recommendation:

If you are into this kind of literature, I think you’ll enjoy this series. It is adventurous escapism at its finest with credible characters, delightful dialog, imaginative settings, and an immersive atmosphere.

A Writer’s Staycation

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Last Friday, I turned in my manuscript to some beta readers. This week, I am trying to take a vacation from writing. Emphasis on trying. Turns out my attempt at a short vacation is only confirming what I’ve suspected all my life — that writing isn’t something I DO, it’s who I AM. My vacation at home is teaching me a few more things about the cliche phrase, “You know you’re a writer when …” So, here we go with some vacation-specific thoughts on how to recognize the writer as a species, compared to writing as a profession.

You Know You’re a Writer When …

1. Though on vacation, you don’t bother turning off your alarm, which is set for 6:00 A.M. on normal weekdays, because you know you will wake up with ideas that need to be quickly transferred into Scrivener notes before you forget them … which is usually right after rolling out of bed. (That and you realize it’s pointless to try to sleep in when you have a cat that sits on you at 5:50 A.M., staring at you like a vulture, waiting for you to wake and feed him.)

2. You go through your morning routine of planning your day, as if you weren’t on vacation, but end up blocking off 2 or more hours anyway for “looking over” your next writing project. That “looking over” turns into plotting the draft of your next book. Then every day thereafter is blocked for working on specific draft elements. And you’re excited about that because the ideas are flowing since you’re not under pressure to have to do it.

3. Your first vacation day is miserable because you planned chores you otherwise don’t normally have time to do … like that half-finished sweater you’ve been knitting since last September. But after you “look over” your spontaneous draft work in the morning, you lose track of time refining it, and by evening you’re scowling at your planner as you highlight things you didn’t accomplish because you spent your “free time” writing.

4. Your second day of vacation is better because you decide that if writing is what you enjoy, and you’re making progress, you should give yourself permission to write! But when you force yourself to shut down Scrivener, you kind of have to talk yourself into playing Witcher 3 to get your mind off of the morning’s plotting. You’re on vacation for Gods’ sakes! Spend half the day playing or something!

5. Your third day of vacation you realize you suck at vacationing. But you’re okay with that because the goal is have fun and relax to counter burnout. If the morning was spent having fun writing, and you can spend the afternoon relaxing with a game … reading a book outside … or daydreaming while napping in the sun and thinking about what you might tackle in tomorrow morning’s draft work. Because your come to realize your idea of vacation is not about taking a break from doing something you love. It’s about giving yourself permission to take a break from the things you don’t love … like mowing the lawn or doing the dishes.

6. Your fourth day of vacation you finally feel like you’re on vacation because you have figured out that more time doing what you love and less time doing what you don’t love results in happiness. And you’re kind of relieved you chose a “staycation” because travel would involve the hassles of arranging pet care, planning an itinerary, and wasting precious money. Imagination is free, and you can take your time enjoying it if you live like every day is a holiday or summer break.

7. You resent the fact that, before the weekend is up, you will probably have to interrupt your writing retreat to face the dandelions taking over the yard. You already resent having to load the dishwasher last night because no one has invented a dishwasher that does that part of the job, too. Oh, and things like laundry and the budget? Their constant presence is a reminder that they will be waiting for you with double the normal workload when your “vacation” ends.

8. You are spending one of your last days of vacation writing about your attempts to take a break from writing because you finished today’s draft work early and now have six plots almost completely mapped out and ready for transcribing onto note cards for the storyboard. But you’re not quite ready to take the afternoon off for Witcher 3 yet. … Perhaps some ice cream and a nap in the sun will help.