Monthly Archives: June 2016

Exploring other media options

Module twelve of my class focused mostly on two other areas of writing: plays and cartoons.

One of the main differences the course highlighted between books and plays is taking in to account the various costs associated with putting a production on, whether it’s a live play or a television script. Props, locations, special effects all add up, so while writing scripts, it’s important to look critically and see if everything you show is necessary, or if you can elude to an event with just as much success as showing it.

Another difference is dialogue. Though the words characters use are important in any kind of writing, as the course author’s point out, in a script, you don’t have the luxury of getting inside a character’s head. Thus, every thought and feeling that is crucial to the story must be expressed. This also means your characters must give plenty of non-verbal cues to other characters. Bob won’t know Jill is sad unless she sighs several times in front of him or has a pained look on her face. These non-verbals are what make your characters really come alive.

Mostly, this module outlined what to expect, should you get your foot in the script-writing door. It covered, briefly, agents, fees, copyrights, production choices, script changes and even casting choices, though as a beginner, not all of these will be applicable.

It did contain a few tips on the actual writing, which I found interesting, having begun, many moons ago, a script for a musical. It’s been on my to-do list for a while, so perhaps some of these tips will help me accomplish it.

First, the authors suggest writing detailed descriptions for each character (which of course means knowing each character you’ll need in your script. I guess I just found my starting point.). This will help you get to know your character before you start writing. The idea is that you won’t get bogged down trying to rationalize behaviors or motivations, you’ll know who your character is and how they would behave, and it will flow more naturally.

Next, you should outline everything, down to what needs to happen in each line of dialogue. We’re mostly all familiar with acts and scenes within plays, but within each scene are segments, lines that make up a group, essentially, and beats, which are the individual lines. The authors suggest outlining your play beat by beat, line by line, before writing any actual dialogue. Why? Because we get attached to the perfect things we right on the first go, and we are loath to change anything.

In short, because you don’t have the luxury of descriptions or taking a look inside someone’s thought process (though we do have monologues, which can accomplish nearly the same, in the right situation), script writing takes a more full immersion into the characters and the story. Where, to a degree, your novel can be a journey of discovering things about your character and seeing where they end up, a script requires some more thorough planning. Each word is important, and needs to move along the plot, or give insight into the character. There are fewer words one can afford to waste.

So, perhaps this summer, I will make a point to do some outlining for my script (not really a children’s play, but, very little about this course is strictly regarding children’s writing anyway). We’ll see what I’ve got when the July dust settles.

First Strike

Continuing my timid testing of popular new thrillers, my latest read was “First Strike” by Ben Coes.

I would classify it as a political intrigue and action book. It looked at the fictional roots and rise of ISIS and how, ultimately, the U.S. thwarts the terrorists and (mostly) everyone lives.

As the second in a row that had a thoroughly predicting plot line, I’m thinking perhaps I use “thriller” in a very different way than most other people.

Don’t get me wrong, “First Strike” was good, but I wasn’t on the edge of my seat reading it. I didn’t have a hard time putting it down to sleep or eat or do pretty much anything else. That’s the type of book I describe when I use the word “thriller.”

That said, the book was well written, and there was plenty of action to keep a reader entertained. It’s the type of book one might turn into a movie. And it is different enough from the other political and military content out there that I think it’s worth a read, if you can handle the content.

The book focuses on ISIS, as I said, and a specific terrorist attack, wherein they take an entire college dorm hostage. For some people, it could hit close to home.

Otherwise, Coes writes a fast-paced book that, though it’s over 400 pages, it’s a quick and easy read, with most chapters being fewer than 10 pages, making it easy to read a chapter or two on a quick break or while waiting for public transportation (assuming you’re like me and you hate stopping in the middle of a chapter, just on principle).

Look for “First Strike,” set to hit shelves June 28.

Writing non-fiction

The older I get, the more I enjoy non-fiction, and the more I read a little something on a subject and have a desire to know more.

Module eleven in my course focused on non-fiction writing, though I’m sad to say it didn’t quite live up to my hopes for the section.

It started largely as a list of titles and series various publishers already have. The most interesting thing I learned is that the publishing house, DK, doesn’t actually stand for Donkey Kong, but for Dorling Kindersley. Even after a year and a half working at a book store, I didn’t know DK actually stood for anything.

The section then talked about how educational or non-fiction books are much more of a team effort, simply because illustrations and visual aids are as important as the words themselves. Next it touched briefly on writing a proposal, mostly pointing out that, in non-fiction, the most important bit is to be able to prove your facts and information are accurate.

I did enjoy the section on biographies, which I think would be the most likely non-fiction avenue I’d pursue, should I choose to put the research time in. As the course authors point out, there are various ways to approach biographies, and there is ample room for quotes from interviews, diaries, and even published works, if they are well-known enough.

For the most part, though, this module didn’t include any specific information. Basically, it was a long-winded way of saying, do extensive research, then write it assuming the child has never heard of it before. It didn’t include any tips on how to find sources, nor how to check the credibility of them, which is a pretty important part of research and non-fiction writing.

Overall, I was a little disappointed with this module. Instead of how-to’s, it included way too many “here’s topics other people already wrote on.” Not even an analysis of what made it successful or advice on how to replicate the success in another topic, or how to look for ways to make a topic relevant in a new way.

Cross Kill

James Patterson’s latest money-making scheme is short, 150-page stories he is calling bookshots. I picked up “Cross Kill” knowing is be doing some catch up, as I haven’t read anything else by Patterson, much less anything in the series.

One thing I can say about Patterson, he did well making the story capable of being a stand-alone. I was not confused jumping in to a story that had history. Patterson wove the necessary backstory in neatly, without making it obvious that he was explaining it.

This introduction into his writing was done in a great way, and I think this idea of bookshots is good insofar as it allows readers to try out an author or series or genre without having to commit, either in money or in time.

That said, I didn’t feel like “Cross Kill” lived up to the suspenseful thriller the cover made it sound like. There were no surprising moves made by any players, and I wasn’t just not guessing the ending, I wasn’t guessing at all. The book was just over 100 pages, and I wasn’t terribly interested in the ending. In fact, the most interesting bit occurred at the end– a great technique to get people to keep reading the series, but for me, I’d be concerned it’s not going to be worth it.

When I read suspense and thrillers, I like to be guessing. I like a puzzle, I like to be pondering the clues even when I’m not reading the book. I like to actively engage in solving the puzzle before the book reveals it. “Cross Kill” didn’t even engage me to try. I knew it would follow to the logical conclusion that, while I wasn’t guessing at, I knew I wouldn’t be surprised at. I knew that once it began to be revealed, the pieces would fall in to place within one sentence.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled with a couple really good psychological thrillers, or maybe it’s not possible to write the way I want in just 159 pages. Either way, I think I’ll stick with Ted Dekker when I need a good thriller.

Sci-fi and fantasy writing

How refreshing to get back to interesting writing information!

Module 10 of my course was all about science fiction and fantasy writing, and focused a lot on world building and making it believable. This module was interesting to me because several of my stories have fallen into this genre, and I’ve always been concerned that my worlds, names, and alien characters are not quite up to snuff.

One of the first things to think about when writing in these genres is names–for worlds, for species, plants. The course authors suggest blending words together or using a misspelling that makes an easily-pronounceable name. Myself, I have used either words from other languages that mean something significant, or slap together some letters that make something that, I think, people can pronounce without needing a glossary for the words and names. For science fiction stories, its a little easier, I think. Stars are often named after mythical characters or creatures with a few numbers tacked on, so that is an easy pattern to follow.

I liked that the course authors pointed out that certain geographical features, such as mountains, swamps and caves, occur only by specific processes, or need specific conditions to endure, so there needs to be thought put into that before scattering such features across your map.

Also necessary to consider is the habitat required for non-human predators. The example they use is carnivorous predators that would require plenty of herbivore prey, which in turn would require plenty of vegetation to live off of. It’s these little things that make it believable. I think it’s an unconscious thing, because I never really think about it, unless something is missing.

Creating a world needs perhaps as much time and effort as plotting in order to make it realistic and believable. I think this is one area where I could put a little more effort in. I’ve never really planned out my worlds or species before, mostly I just make them up as I go along. I’m interested to review some of my past work, with this in mind, and pinpoint specific areas where I can improve and grow my skills, because this really is one of my favorite genres, both to read and to write.

Blood Diamonds

Ever since I saw the 2006 film, conflict or blood diamonds has been a subject of interest to me.

By chance, I saw “Blood Diamonds” by Greg Campbell on the shelf at work, and waited patiently until I could buy it.

The book, first published in 2002 and updated in 2012, outlines the history, politics and economic factors that contributed to a decade of civil war in Sierra Leone in Africa.

Campbell uses his personal experiences and interviews from his time in Sierra Leone as a journalist to supplement his research on the topic of conflict diamonds originating in Sierra Leone.

This book has several graphic portrayals of war horrors, so it’s not a book to take on lightly. But, as America is the largest consumer of diamonds, I think it’s a subject everyone should at least be aware of. Because, as Campbell points out, the problem is not going away.

The war in Sierra Leone may have ended (for now), but the cycle repeats itself in other countries, and the citizens suffer in poverty because, though the nation has vast natural wealth, it is plundered, and none of the money goes back into the country.

“Blood Diamonds” takes an in-depth look at the diamond industry, which turned a blind eye to conflict diamonds throughout the worst years of war. It also takes a close look at how illegal diamond mining and smuggling is a vast reaching network, and how diamonds mined in Sierra Leone were used to fund terrorist attacks, even attacks against America. Diamonds are portable wealth and, thanks to big businesses controlling supply and demand, diamonds are a stable form of wealth, which means they are a safe way to stockpile reserves for whenever one might need it.

Overall, “Blood Diamonds” was an interesting read, and I am prompted now to do some investigating of my own to see how things have progressed in the five years since the book was updated.

Writing for teens

Of all the ages to write for, I think teens would be my least favorite, and I have no desire to try it.

Module nine of my writing course focused on books for teens, and it solidified my mindset that I would not make a good teen writer. It’s not because I’m afraid of the challenge of writing something to capture the angsty, hormonal mind, it’s that reading even just the synopses of the books chosen as examples, I know how most of them end, never having read a single one. Teen books are glorified Hallmark stories– predictable, fitting neatly into a box. Things have to end right. At least with children, you have the imagination factor, they will go with you on a journey that is unreal. For teens, though, you have to curb the extravagance and still end the story the way they would want it to.

This module spent a lot of time talking about various genres in teen books: horror, romance, adventure and mysteries. It didn’t include much of anything new, just the same old tips; don’t use specifics for technology or music and thereby date your story, be aware of how the target audience perceives the world so you can write convincingly from their viewpoint, don’t stray from the standard rules and accepted norms of how things are (i.e., vampires have fangs and drink blood, ghosts cause a chill in the room, werewolves turn on the full moon).

The authors of the course make it seem that teens, even more, perhaps, than children, want books that end in a way the expect and want. And for me, that’s no fun to read, much less write. And the last few teen books I’ve read (few and far between, I’ll admit) suggest that this isn’t just my perception, this is how the market really is. Not that everything is predictable, but much of it is, or in the least appears to be, which is a turnoff.

For me, I’m not sure I could write a convincing piece, at least not something I would be pleased with. But I’m OK with that, because teens were not my target to begin with. I like the flexibility and freedom of imagination, and, let’s be honest, most teens are going through the phase where they aren’t in to imagination. They want to seem grown up and mature, and our culture suggests that maturity is synonymous with unimaginative (unless you’re problem solving in the professional world, then maybe it’s OK). But, perhaps that is something to change, a challenge to tackle, showing that getting lost in a good story, no matter how unrealistic, isn’t childish or something to be ashamed of. It’s an escape, just like so many other things we do. And sometimes it’s fun to try something new.

The Mirror Empire

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley was one of my impulse books from work, something that sounded like it might be good. Now that I’ve finished it, I’m not entirely sure what I thought of the book, and I’m not sure if I’ll continue with the series.

The storyline was good enough; three nations of the world are all endangered by the rising of one star, which in history has always heralded death and destruction. With its ascendance, all the parallel worlds are coming close together and the fabrics dividing them can be torn and bridged. The synopsis caught my interest, which was why I brought it home, but I’ll be honest, 100 pages in to the book, I felt like I’d been thrown into the ocean right on the edge of a hurricane. The book started with chaos, and it took several hundred pages before I was able to piece everything together and grasp what was going on. I think it didn’t help that there were several key characters to follow that would all mesh in the end, so it was relevant to show how they all got where they needed to be, but, I think it did make the book feel chaotic and like there was a little too much going on without enough connection.

Another thing that was irritating to me, though certainly just a minor thing, was the fluidity of gender. I know the author did this on purpose, but as the book didn’t actually tackle gender issues or even provide much discussion, to me, it was an unnecessary distraction. For one of the people groups, there were five genders to choose from, and each individual made the choice themselves. And I’m quite certain that throughout the book, there were characters that changed gender pronouns, and there was no discussion about it. One page it was she, the next it was he. And it was confusing and distracted me from the story. It is an interesting technique to use for a story that wants to look closely at gender and explore the question of biology vs. social construction, but, in order to do that, there has to be the discussion, and gender has to be a main theme of the book. As I said, the way Hurley used gender fluidity seemed to serve more as a distraction than any kind of literary or critical thinking technique.

The Mirror Empire is book one in the Worldbreaker Saga, and I’ll admit I’m torn about whether I want to pursue the series or not. There are a lot of questions left unanswered at the end (as it should be for a series), and, despite distractions and the general chaos of the first book, it was interesting, and I did enjoy the read. But do I want to spend the money on a series of who knows how many books? I’m not sure yet. (Actually, I don’t even know if the next book has been published yet. I guess that would possibly answer my question, for the time being.) I think it’s a series I’d pursue at the library, or borrow, not one I’m committed to spending money on. Not yet, anyway. But, it wasn’t so bad that I won’t give the author another book to win my attention.