“Story for Boys” vs. “Story for Girls”

Warning: If you haven’t seen either of the How To Train Your Dragon movies or Disney’s Frozen and knowing events will spoil the viewing experience for you, don’t read this post.

There’s been a lot of talk about feminism in entertainment this summer. About how females aren’t empowered in fiction, regardless of the media. I tend to agree with this, but I find the problem to be this: when stories are geared to one gender or the other, the very nature of the characters change as well as the kind of story that’s being told. Personally, I find it rather insulting that The Powers That Be (book publishers and movie producers) think this is not only necessary, but proper.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’ll compare “a movie for girls” (Disney’s Frozen) and “a movie for boys” (DreamWorks’ two How to Train Your Dragon movies). I’ve seen the three movies and greatly enjoyed the HTTYD movies, but found Frozen to be highly disappointing as a story. It took a little time and a lot of discussion with my friend and editor, June Dal, but I think the basic problems lies with the difference between how “stories for boys” and “stories for girls” are constructed.

I’m using the two HTTYD movies because the hero in each relates to one of the princesses in Frozen for illustration purposes. I’m also ignoring the songs in Frozen as songs, but am looking at them as dialogue and what they contribute to the story.

Let’s take the younger princess first. In Frozen, Anna obviously worships her elder sister, Elsa. When Elsa’s powers accidently injure Anna, their parents decide the best thing to do is to lock their daughters in the castle and suppress all knowledge of Elsa’s powers. Both girls submit to their parents’ decree and Anna grows up very lonely, remembering a close friendship with her sister and longing for it, however no other friends are ever brought in for her to play with or grow close to.

When they’re older teens, their parents die and Elsa becomes queen and the palace doors are finally opened, allowing Anna to see the world for the first time in her memory. She falls in love with a personable young man, Hans, and seeks Elsa’s blessing, which is refused. The sisters fight and Elsa runs off, casting her kingdom from spring into deep winter. Anna immediately goes after her to talk to her, but makes no progress until she meets Kristoff, a young ice seller,  who gets her where she’s going. The talk with her sister does not go well, and Anna is injured again, this time fatally unless there’s an act of true love. The story first suggests that Anna must be kissed by her true love, Hans, in order to fulfill this requirement. But, Hans turns out to be a villain who only wants the kingdom, not Anna. She cries until Olaf, the talking snowman, finds her and suggests that Kristoff is her true love. Olaf also gets her out of the prison of her room so she can try to find Kristoff. Before she can reach Kristoff, however, she sees  Hans about to kill Elsa and inserts herself just as she turns to ice, saving her sister. This “act of true love” revives Anna, returning her and the kingdom to normal for the happy ending.

In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup is the only son of Stoick the Vast, the chief and the Viking’s Viking. Stoick fights giant flaming dragons face-to-face and wins. Hiccup wants more than anything to be a respected Viking in his community, which means he needs to kill a dragon. However, he’s “a talking fishbone” and his smarts and inventive ingenuity are discounted by everyone, including his father. In the opening of the movie, Hiccup’s invention downs the mysterious and dangerous Night Fury. While Stoick takes several ships of warriors (men and women) to hunt down the dragons’ nest to destroy it, Hiccup tends to Toothless, the fallen Night Fury, and learns that everything Vikings know about dragons is wrong. Toothless takes Hiccup and his rival/dreamgirl Astrid to the dragons’ nest to discover an evil queen dragon, who threatens and eats other dragons who don’t feed her enough. Stoick discovers Hiccup’s secret, disowns him and forces Toothless to guide his forces to the island. Hiccup introduces his friends to dragons and they ride to the rescue. Hiccup comes up with a plan that kills the evil queen, once he’s rescued Toothless, at some personal cost.

The similarities I see are:

* Both Anna and Hiccup are a form of outcast from the society in which they live

* Both have a vision of an ideal life they’d like to have

* They both would rather talk problems out than fight

* They both gather friends-allies in their quest

* They both use assistance to achieve their plans

* They both save the day in the end

The dissimilarities I see are:

* When told to “stay put and be good”, Anna obeys without question; Hiccup strives to prove himself repeatedly, disaster after disaster.

* Anna goes off to talk to her sister with only a cape against the sudden winter and no clue where to find Elsa; Hiccup gathers ropes to help his friends hang onto the dragons they learned to ride and knew exactly how to find Toothless and the other Vikings.

* When his plan to convince his village that dragons weren’t what they thought and everything goes bad, Hiccup makes another plan and enacts it; When Anna’s talk with Elsa doesn’t go well, Anna becomes unfocused and cannot make another decision until Elsa’s life is in danger.

* Anna looks to men to save her; Hiccup looks to a girl (Astrid) as the ideal Viking.

Do you see the basic difference between Anna and Hiccup? Anna comes up with a single plan (to talk to her sister), but she doesn’t prepare well and can’t get where she’s going without help from a man. Once that fails, she flails and allows Kristoff to make all her decisions for her. When Hans is revealed as a bad guy, she cries until the snowman arrives and gives her new direction. It isn’t until the very end, when she has nothing left to lose, that she throws herself in the way to save her sister.

Hiccup, from the beginning, has a plan to gain respect from his people. He succeeds, but no one believes him. As he discovers more information, he makes new plans, invents things to achieve those goals, adjusts plans until the end where it is only his plans and his ability to work with the traditional Viking enemy (Toothless) wins the day.

Moving on to the elder princess and the second HTTYD movie.

We actually see very little of Elsa, if you think about it. She accidently hurts her sister and then hides in her room for years. Strangely, no one seems to notice that the heir to the crown, their future queen, shuns everyone, including her sister. When she’s challenged by Anna after the coronation, her first reaction is to strike out and run away. When she’s challenged by Hans and the others, she has this awesome, terrifying power and then doesn’t use it well to defend herself. Once imprisoned, she uses her power to escape, but it seems almost accidental. Then she flees again to wander pointlessly until the villain finds her.

From what we’re shown, Elsa is a horrible queen. There are years between the death of her parents and her own coronation, so who was running the country if she was hiding in her room? While the song Let It Go is enthusiastic, it’s all about how she feels and what she wants and is very selfish. The song shows no caring for the sister she just left or the kingdom she’s now responsible for. From the mountains, she doesn’t even look back to see what havoc she wrought. She builds her ice palace and is content in her solitude until her sister’s visit causes her to lose control again. And all we see her do for her subjects is let them ice skate in the summer (at the very end).

Whereas, when Hans is given command in the sisters’ absences, the only time we see him, he’s actually making certain people have warmth and are taken care of. He’s being a good ruler. Yeah, he’s a bad boyfriend and wants to take the kingdom from Elsa, but I can’t help thinking it would be better had he succeeded.

Again–it’s the man who’s demonstrating competence in decision making and carrying out plans, not the women.

In How to Train Your Dragon 2, five years have passed since the first movie and Stoick has his mind set on retirement and making Hiccup the chief. Hiccup would rather continue to explore the area with Toothless, discovering new lands and dragons. Out on one of these explorations, Hiccup and Astrid discover a man named Drago Bludvist is collecting dragons for an army. Stoick wants to lock everything down, but Hiccup attempts to go talk to Drago. This all goes wrong as well, and Drago gains control of Toothless, forcing the Night Fury to kill Stoick. With Hiccup and his allies grieving, Drago and his dragon army moves to attack Berk (Hiccup’s home). Hiccup thinks of a way to go after the villain and manages to bring Toothless back to his senses. With Hiccup’s plan, Drago’s plan starts to falter and Toothless then ends it once and for all, out of love for Hiccup. At the end, Hiccup is hailed by his village as the new chief.

Similarities:

* Both have strained relationships with their parent(s).

* Both Elsa and Hiccup are reluctant rulers whose father’s death thrust the responsibility on them.

* Both face challenges to their way of life.

* Both have great power at their command (Elsa: Ice power, Hiccup: Dragonmaster and Toothless).

* Both are responsible for the dangers faced at the end of their story.

Dissimilarities:

* Elsa runs from confrontation and problems; Hiccup faces confrontation and problems

* Elsa does not confide in family or friends; Hiccup confides and seeks advice from family and friends

* When confronted with Elsa’s power, her people do not defend her from cries of “witch”; When confronted by Drago, Astrid voices confidence in Hiccup’s power

* Elsa does nothing to save her sister or her country from the villain; Hiccup actively works to save Toothless and Berk from Drago’s forces

* Hiccup is shown actively caring for his father, his friends, his dragon, and his village; Elsa is shown actively caring about her sister and herself.

Moving away from the main characters for a moment, let’s look at how women and girls are portrayed in HTTYD. Though none are named, women are defending Berk as well as the men during the initial dragon attack. We see women warriors on the ships to attack dragons as well as men, and they return wounded, just as the men are.

We have three named females in the two movies: Astrid, Ruffnut and Valka.

Valka has, for the last 20 years, has single-handedly rescued dragons from Drago’s traps and hirelings without any help. She knows more about dragons than anyone, including Hiccup. She is actually the first target Drago intends to defeat.

Astrid and Ruffnut are Hiccup’s peers. Both are on the track to be good dragon-killing Vikings at the start of the first movie. Astrid is the one to beat. Astrid is the epitome of what a Viking should be, and the Viking Hiccup can only dream of becoming. She plays as a major antagonist in the first movie before Toothless convinces her to side with Hiccup. By the second movie, she is still a fearsome dragon-riding Viking warrior and very much Hiccup’s right hand. In Hiccup’s absence, she makes decisions and plans and their coterie follow her lead. While she isn’t as insightful or creative as Hiccup, she is as brave and intelligent.

In HTTYD2, Astrid makes a plan to save Hiccup and Stoick and goes after it. Though her plan turns out to be faulty because of ignorance, she is effective within the boundaries of her knowledge. Her decision and actions place Hiccup’s resources at hand when he needs them, which works since she is Hiccup’s partner and not just his love interest.

Ruffnut stands more as a comedic relief in the story, but her comments do bring some insight. She is also fearless when it comes to conflict and obeys instruction, despite smart-alec remarks. In this discussion, she’s also important because she falls in love with Eret, who traps dragons for Drago. She falls in love, watching him from afar and is totally captivated. Eret makes no bones about not being interested, but she isn’t dissuaded. Well, not until he turns them over to Drago as captives. “Aw, you were so perfect!” Afterward, he sides with Astrid, Ruffnut and the others, joining Hiccup’s fight, and she loves him again. However, when she’s knocked from her dragon and is falling to her death, it isn’t Eret who saves her, but the two young men who’ve been trying to woo her all through the movie. It is then that she realizes her love for Eret was lust and turns her romantic attentions to young men who actually care about her.

Compare that reaction to Anna’s when Hans reveals himself as a villain. She lays down and sobs until Olaf points out that Kristoff loves her, so she goes running to Kristoff. We get no explanation, no exclamation, no realization from Anna about the change of affections. If it’s true love, then shouldn’t she feel it too? Shouldn’t she have had doubts about Hans’ kiss being able to save her?

As far as I can see, the “story for girls” focuses so much time and attention on emotions and relationships and giving motivation for those things, the writers forget or ignore what the characters’ actions say about them and their world. The princesses in Frozen are complacent and obedient to their parents’ bad decisions, never questioning, never pushing boundaries, never looking for options, never negotiating for something that would make them happy and allow them to grow as people.

For all that it was hailed as a pro-female movie, I found Frozen highly disappointing in its messages to young females. It gives the subtle lessons that the right thing for girls is to be passive, obedient to even absurd rules, not to try too hard, to wait for a man to help or tell her what to do. Frozen just repeated the same age-old rote from Disney’s early years of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Disney has back-pedaled from the promise of Ariel’s stubborn independence (in The Little Mermaid) and even the historically inaccurate Pocahontas’ willingness to fight for what she loved. I find that fact to be very sad indeed.

Whereas the “story for boys” has heroes who make decisions, make plans, and go after their goals, adjusting their plans when they’re stymied or fail outright. Regardless if they’re male (or female, in the HTTYD series), characters in a “story for boys” are expected to be active, goal-oriented, and more assertive/less submissive.

It seems to me that such heroes as Hiccup encourage boys to think for themselves, to make their own assessments and decisions, to think of plans to gain goals, to question rules and people who try to harm them in some way. They’re encouraged to be independent, creative, inventive, educated and intelligent.

I have to question whether these lessons should only be taught to boys. In 2014, this should be geared to all young people, not one gender over the other. And these are lessons children learn because when children love a movie, they will watch it thousands of times; they will memorize every line and repeat it; they learn movies they love by heart. They take the lessons within those movies to heart. As adults, we should be aware of what the lessons we’re giving our children to take to heart really are because that’s what will mold them into the adults they will someday be.

As a writer, I know the old axiom: “Character is action.” Emotions are necessary, but what captures readers (and viewers) are characters that DO INTERESTING STUFF. Anna is more interesting than Elsa because she actually attempts to do something about the sudden winter. Even though Elsa got the best song, she is passive and incompetent, a fact that might be okay for the beginning if she’d managed to learn to be more active over the course of the story. Yet even Anna does not DO as much as even the side characters in the “story for boys”. Her actions are largely ineffectual and when she is confronted with failure her only response is to cry.

Someone asked George R. R. Martin (he of Game of Thrones authorial fame) how he could write such fascinating and strong female characters. His reply is one that I wish more writers (and publishers and producers) would remember: “I’ve always considered women to be people.” By focusing so much on how the princesses feel, to the detriment of what they do, the writers of Frozen have in many ways lessened their main characters ‘as people’. As I said before, emotions are important, and it might be reasonable that a ‘movie for girls’ will focus more on them than a ‘movie for boys’. But, emotional content can’t be the whole of a good story. The character’s actions also have to make them worthy of the term ‘hero/ine’.

Writing Under Stress

Writing when your real life goes to Hell in a leaking hand basket. Let’s be honest, doing anything when your life goes bad can be a major undertaking. Many writers feel guilty because they’re not getting words. Sometimes they put more pressure on themselves because of that guilt.

Speaking from experience, that’s a great way to screw yourself over.

My father passed away last Monday. He’d been very ill on and off for the last few years and his quality of life topped out at “miserable” for the last few months. He went peacefully, with my mother (his wife of 55 years) and my sister sitting with him. I was on the road for the almost 11 hour trip and didn’t get to see him.

By any standards, this has knocked me for a loop. I was very close to my father. Though his passing didn’t come as a surprise, no one can really prepare for it. Until it happens, you don’t know how you’ll react emotionally. You can guess, you can suspect, but until it happens, you don’t know how it will hit you or how badly.

The thing is, this is a wound in your heart, in your soul. Just like a physical wound, it takes time to heal. Just like a physical wound, different things can help that healing, and other things can hinder it. Which is which is as individual as the person, as the wound. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. (As is so common in anything having to do with writing, y’know?)

I haven’t really written anything new since then, I admit, though I have looked at my MIP on occasion. My brain wants something else to think about, anything else. Work is only diverting while I’m there, after all. I’ve been able to make a few small edits, but there is no real creative juice there. Yet.

I’ve been through this before. My favorite sister died unexpectedly in 1999. That hit hard. It was months before I could do anything creative again but I guilted myself big-time for not being able to put the words together. I got very concerned that I’d never finish the book I was working on, that I’d never write anything good ever again. That added to the depression after my sister’s passing, which only made creativity withdraw further.

My grandfather passed from cancer the following July, just after I got back into writing. Again, big depression set in at the loss, since I’m prone to such bouts. Again, the guilt came because–damnitall, I’d just gotten back to writing and it wasn’t fair! The cycle started again and came back with a vengeance. I didn’t finish that book. I still haven’t, actually. In 2001, I kicked into learning about writing and pretty much didn’t really try to write a novel again until 2007–and I’m still working on that novel today, ’cause it’s been on-and-off with the creativity again.

So I’m not stressing about being creative. Yeah, I’m at the climax of the book, the big battle I’ve been building towards and wanting to write for over a year now. But the words aren’t there–and that’s okay. That’s the way it has to be because I’m wounded and healing. I’ve learned my lesson, I’m not picking at the wound again. I know the tears will dry some day, maybe sooner, maybe later. I know I’ll never stop wanting him to be there, but the moments of wanting him there will become more infrequent. I’ll heal and be able to tap into the creative well again.

After all, the only way I’m going to disappoint my dad is if I let his passing silence the writing he was so proud of. I’ve always endeavored not to disappoint him.

Plot Plodding

Something I hear writers talk (read: complain) about a LOT is plot. They worry about having one before they start writing. They worry about holes in it. They worry it’s boring. They worry about all kinds of things having to do with the plot.

What catches me up is that I’m not sure some of them know what a plot really is, so it seems to me that they’re worrying and fussing about the wrong things.

Plot is not the sequence of events, the flow of causes and effects, which is what most people talk about. It’s not the be-all-and-end-all of the story.

Plot is the release of information to the reader.

That probably needs more words to explain it better, huh?

Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment. What is story? What is storytelling? How does plot fit into it?

Story, in my experience, is the sharing of something that’s either universal or interesting to the human experience. Storytelling is the asking of questions by the teller and the interest in the answers by the listener. Thus, plot is the structure of that sharing, when the important points are revealed to listener.

In other words: You can run cause-and-effect scenes one right after another and get a novel-length manuscript, but, if you think about it, that’s all our real lives are. This happens, then this happens, and something else happens, and it’s all pretty boring. The bits we share are the unusual moments (So I was taking care of this customer, and all of a sudden he starts vomiting on me!), the moments that will connect us with other people (Oh, my child/pet/spouse/coworker does something like that too…) or the just plain humorous moments (And then she just slipped and fell flat on her backside!) that we’ve experienced.

It’s that kind of interest that makes it a story. The larger the story, the more important those moments, and the more frequent those moments have to appear. There’s an old adage in writing: “Conflict on every page.” I don’t know about conflict, but there’s got to be something on every page that will either have the readers asking more questions, giving them some tidbit of information or finalizing the answer from all those tidbits. That doling out of information is the plot.

Of course, this is assuming that the storyteller is aware of the fact that they’re giving questions to the listener in the first place. Many, many writers I’ve talked to don’t understand the concept of story questions, which is kind of amazing to me. To give an example of story questions, let me post the first two paragraphs of my manuscript-in-progress, Legend’s End

Sullore never thought he’d resent watching the moon rise. He could see its ascent clearly through the large opening in the cave wall. Its fullness washed over the farmlands outside of the city, highlighting the massive rise of the King’s Carn and, finally, hinting at the distant foothills. The landscape taunted freedom. As the light grew brighter, it sliced through the darkness of the prison floor.

 

This was Sullore’s sixth time knowing judgment might well come with the dawn. Repetition made it no easier. There was no guarantee there would be another reprieve, and he refused to expect one. Sullore knew the crimes he was accused of, knew his actions, and knew the judgment was out of his control. He would die or live at the word of the yet-unknown queen, whenever she took the Crystal Throne.

If I’ve done the work correctly, the story questions I hope the readers comes away with are as follows:

1. What did Sullore do to be in prison?

2. Why isn’t there a Crystal Queen?

3. What is a Crystal Queen?

 If the reader has more questions, all the better, but those are the ones that will lead them into the main story. As for answers, the first one is answered later that scene. The second question is answered by the end of the next scene, which should also emphasize the third question. There’s tidbits of information throughout the first three chapters, but isn’t mostly answered until midway through Chapter Three. But in the course of giving those answers, I’ve raised more by introducing more characters and their situations and relationships. By the end of the third chapter, the war that is the main conflict of the book has been declared by assassination.

Please note that I called the war the main conflict. That is driving conflict that influences every character’s choices and attitudes, it is not the main plot. The conclusion of that main conflict is the resolution of the main plotline, but it, in and of itself, isn’t the plot. The conflict is the topic of questions and answers. The plot is still when questions are asked, and answers given.

Throughout the novel, I have a lot of topics I ask questions about. Character relationships, a certain character’s sanity, the nature of magic and gods in this world, the meaning of responsibility. Each of these questions form their own story arcs when the question is asked, heighten as tidbits are given, and end when the answer is given. And all of these story arcs intersect and merge with the main story arc of whether or not our heroes will win the war and prevent their homeland from being invaded.

Hopefully, this perspective makes some sense. It’s rather difficult to take something that I know fairly instinctively (plot) and don’t need have to think consciously about and try to explain it in words. How’d I do?

An Illiad

Earlier this month, friends and I went to see a one man production of An Illiad. Adapted from Homer by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, it was a modern retelling of one of the most classic works in the Western World.

And I do mean retelling. Literally.

The Poet (played exquisitely by Teagle F. Bougere) comes on stage in a trench coat and carrying a suitcase and tells us the story of from the taking of Helen to Hector’s funeral. Except, it’s not just the story. Though the Poet says outright that he has told this story countless times before a myriad of audiences, it’s understood he’s an eternal character who is sharing something of his own memories. He quotes Homer in classical Greek. He appeals to the Muses for inspiration, to give him the words, the courage to tell this story again, to please not desert him mid-performance. Many of his descriptions are direct translations of Homer’s original text.

Yet what the playwrights and actor managed was to relate this legendary war to modern life. There’s a particularly poignant several minutes where the Poet is describing the horrors of the battlefield and he says (from my memory), “I’ve not see the likes of it since…” And then he lists each major war in the world from the time of Troy to present day, in every country we have records for. Squatting on the table, his voice a sad monotone, the name of every single major war for pretty much the entire history of mankind.

It still brings tears to my eyes, just thinking about that never-ending list echoing in the absolute silence of the theater.

Though the show was intense, with the Poet once so overcome with battle lust that he “threatens” to attack an audience member, to Achilles’ rage at his friend’s death and the insults heaped upon his honor, to sobbing inconsolably after Hector’s death, the story still has moments of humor, a quick turn-of-phrase which keeps it from becoming morbid.

When I think about mugging myths, this is the kind of thing I strive for. To find a new connection in what is universal in humankind between the far distant past and the present. While there was much talk about war, yes, but it wasn’t about war in itself. It was still the point The Illiad always had: The hubris of people thinking that war will solve anything, yet it’s a lesson that the human race never learns, even as we face war again.

This is the universal connection in humankind I was talking about, that something that we all have a personal opinion about, personal fears about. This is the essence of what good stories touch on, talk about, bring to the fore and make relevant for the present audience.

This reminder came at a good point, after having spent too much of the last many months bogged down by things other than the real point of the story. A glowing example to steer my ship by as I start sailing the creative waters again.

 

The production of An Illiad I saw with Teagle F. Bougere continues at the Pittsburgh Public Theater (www.ppt.org) through April 6, 2014. I highly recommend it if you are in the area.

SF vs. Fantasy

george-bernard-show-why-not-quote

The Gods Themselves*

When I say the word “god”, what comes to mind?

For many people, they get some form of a pantheon, as made popular by authors like Edith Bulfinch. You know the kind, with a king of gods and his queen of gods and then all the other gods with their specific destination of what they’re in charge of.

That’s all well and good, but do you agree with me that it’s terribly limiting? For that matter, it’s not even historically accurate. You just have to look at the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to see that, FWIW, since most people think of Artemis to be a virginal goddess and that’s not what she was at her Temple at Ephesus. The same god meant different things to different peoples, even village to village. Yet, modern people tend to default to Bulfinch-like categories when thinking of such gods.

(Over the decades, I’ve done a lot of reading on various myths and gods, so what follows here is a summation of all that reading. It’s unlikely that I’ll remember any books or titles, since some of this information was gleaned from reading books that were old in the 1970’s, so please don’t ask for citations. This isn’t that kind of blog.)

The thing with gods is that they’re not one-size-fits-all-people concepts.

The Greek gods, for instance, were to be placated so they would ignore humanity. When the gods took interest in humans, epic things happened and epic things meant that life got hard. That’s not what they wanted out of their existence.

If you read deeper into Egyptian beliefs (which changed over the three thousand years of their ancient history), you’ll begin to realize that while all the gods were individuals, they were also all facets of the same divine force at the same time.

The Norse, OTOH, seems to think of the gods as being basically human, with foibles, strengths and passions, but also responsible for bigger things in the world than humans were. The gods were more powerful buddies than, well, gods.

The Celts didn’t really have gods in the sense of that we default to. They had people who were greater than humans, but there also seems to me that they anthropomorphized certain things too big for them to understand, like the sea.

All very different that a list of “gods of”, isn’t it?

So when I think about the religion(s) of a world I’ve created, I don’t think so much about a “gods of” list. I think about the society I’m creating and what their religious beliefs say about that society. About what’s important to that society. About the power levels that any priesthood holds. About whether or not any magic system in place stems from a divine nature. Sometimes the answer is a “gods of” list. That can be perfect. But oft-times, it’s not, so I like to draw from all the options history and my imagination provides.

 

And once the religion’s figured out, then I can play with all the options about how much is actually in tune with what the gods really are….

 

 

* Title borrowed from a wonderful book by Isaac Asimov–the only SF book on my Keeper Shelf

Small stone, Big ripples

It seemed like such a small change. It really did.

There are chariots in Legend’s End. The world is loosely based on Ancient Egypt/Sumer, so I was kinda thinking of that kind of chariot. One of my heroes is a charioteer (the driver of said chariots) and I need to show how good he is with horses for the climax to work right. Having gone through the about 100,000 words I’ve written, I see no place to dramatize that without adding a scene that screams “Hey look–Joaw’s really good with horses!” No, don’t want to do that.

So I decided to move where the charioteer stands while driving the team. Rather than take up space in the chariot itself, I added a little shelf space in the front for the driver to stand and drive. After all, if someone’s standing right there, they’ve got to be good with horses, y’know? There’s scenes where Joaw’s driving the chariot in battle. All very cool.

But, then, I got to thinking. If this is the normal way that chariots are driven, that means there’s an expertise there, a servant class occupation. Which means all the scenes where I have kings and such driving their own chariots–that’s not going to happen. Chariots are going to be built for that driver. Reins aren’t going to be long enough to reach back to the guy riding in the chariot proper.

Which means that every time I mention a chariot, I’ve got to look at it and see what’s going on and if I have to insert a driver, if the driver is in the right space. The first time we see a chariot, another hero (Drais) is driving it, so I had to add a bit that the only reason that works is because Drais is so tall, his arms so long, that he can still grasp the reins.

Then I realized that when the heroes take a ship, I didn’t mention what happened to the chariot and team of horses. Gotta get that in, and yet not change too much of what I have because it works well. But it’s a great way to get in just how good Joaw is with horses.

There’s a scene where one of the antagonists intends to murder the POV character, but he doesn’t while en route because he’s driving the chariot. But if he’s the equivalent of a four-star general, why is he driving his own chariot? And if he’s not occupied by driving, why doesn’t the murder happen earlier?

When it comes to the big climatic battle, Joaw is going to be in front of the chariot in the midst of everything, which is a much more trapped position than I thought he’d be in. Interestingly, I’m not bothered much about that. That kind of tangle is normal to figure out in the course of writing.

All this rippling is also normal in the course of writing, I know. It’s just one of the annoying normal things. Not much fun at all, but I’d rather do it then annoy the reader out of the story, y’know?

May you live in interesting times

My understanding is that’s an ancient Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. When I was younger, I didn’t understand how that was a curse. Now, I do. Seriously.

It seems everything in the world is changing (except human nature). Politics, both inter- and intranational, the economy, morality, what was benign is now evil. Everywhere I look, something fundamental seems to be shifting. Some of the shifts are good for me, some scare me, many are meh. So why should the publishing world be so different?

Back when I started writing (1974), there was only one way to publish. You sent your book to an editor (magazine or book publisher) and they bought it or not. Only the elite writers had agents to handle their careers for them, back in the day. The big dream was to sell well enough to need an agent.

That was a long time ago.

Within a decade, there was a slight shift. Book publishers wanted agents to go through the slush piles for them, they didn’t want to do that work anymore. More and more, a writer needed an agent just to get published. It was a little shift, but it’s stayed that way pretty much until today. Very few book publishers would read an unagented work.

Since I started this writing thing, it’s always been BAD to self-publish. Better to self-publish than to vanity publish (where the writer pays the publisher to produce their book, usually with draconian contracts greatly restricting the author in the mix), but still you were supposed to look down at writers that self-published.

And we did. With great zeal and disdain and it made us feel so much better about ourselves. Sure, we were unpublished, but we were still better than anyone who self-published.

Then things started happening on occasion. The late Vince Flynn self-published his first book (Term Limits, IIRC) and sold enough copies to gather New York publishers’ attention. They bought the book and he became an “overnight” best seller. And there was Richard Paul Evans with The Christmas Box. Here and there, these self-published people suddenly were doing well. One might even put Christopher Paolini (Eragon) there, since it was his parents that published him, but that’s been a subject for debate among writers since it happened whether or not he belongs there.

But, y’know, they were news because they were so different. They weren’t the norm.

Except, they’re becoming more of the norm.

Self-publishing isn’t what it used to be. It isn’t the way for the hopeless to make themselves feel better about themselves or to be able to answer the eternal question “Got anything I can read?” with something other than a lame excuse. Self-publishing is now a lucrative means of getting work out there and making something of a living off it. It’s becoming more common to make as much, if not more at self-publishing nowadays than traditional publishing pays in advances ($3-5000) annually.

I have friends who make enough self-publishing that NY publishers have approached them. This was a dream of all dreams, back in the day, after all. And what NY offered them was less than they were making already, so they refused. I can’t say I blame them, honestly. I have many friends are actually replacing their low-wage jobs with the earnings from their writings, and that number seems to be increasing every year.

See what I mean, though? Interesting times. Writers now have direct access to processes that were previously unavailable to them. Direct access to readers. What was now doesn’t have to be. It’s a major shift now that the readers are on board with it too.

There’s still a lot of talk about self-published books being unedited and unprofessional, which makes me laugh, honestly. I mean, have you read the books in the bookstore? The typos, the wordos, the misprints are legend. I’ve heard author after author tell me that every stage of editing with their publisher adds another dozen or so errors to the prose. Yeah, I think a competent self/indie-publisher can meet those standards. Especially since I’ve seen several former NY editors advertising their services to writers. I’ve heard some agents are advertising such services as well.

Distribution is the other place where NY publishers claim superiority, but I wonder about that since many of my friends sell several thousand ebooks a year. Sounds like whatever is open to authors is working just as well, y’know?

Mind you, I don’t know if this is going to be a “revolution” or if publishing as it has been for a century will be no more. I don’t think it’s going to be anything to such an extreme, at least not immediately. Maybe not within my lifetime. But it is changing and won’t be the same anymore. It isn’t even the same now as it was five years ago, nor do I think it will be entirely the same in another five.

So, we live in interesting times. Wonder how it’s all going to shake out?

Swallowing Toads

There’s an old saying: “Swallow a toad first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

I don’t remember where I heard that, but it always made sense to me. Not literally, of course. But the sentiment is there and has pulled me through many a bad spell.

Years don’t generally start out with toads for me. And my 2014 toad isn’t as frightening as some of my friends, it’s been very stressful to my household.

I have a dog (and a cat, but this story is about the dogs), but my best friend seems to collect them at random times. As I rent half her house, her pets affect me and mine a great deal.

For much of our friendship, going to get pet food was always a dangerous thing because that’s where rescue groups display animals for adoption. I’ve gotten my last two dogs from these efforts (the Foo Bat and my previous dog, Amber), and she’s gotten many of her pack. Last July, we were going for dog food and she saw a greyhound/dalmation mix named Bella in one of the crates. I was not enthused about her getting another dog, since we already had four in the house, but she decided to bring Bella home.

Bella had a sad story. She’d been adopted from the local Humane Society as a puppy and lived with the same couple for 11 years. The reason she was back with the Humane Society was “divorce”. She was well trained and gentle and she got along fine with the other dogs. We took her to the vet and discovered that the warts all over her body weren’t warts, but a form of very aggressive, inoperable cancer. It wasn’t a hard decision: she wasn’t going back just because she had cancer.

And all was good through the holidays. Then, the weekend before last, my BFF came home from the movies while I was at work. The front room had been trashed, there was blood all over the place. Bastian, the terrier mix, was cowering in the upstairs bathroom and wouldn’t come out and Bella was covered in blood. She called me and I came home from work.

It wasn’t hard to figure out what happened: Bella had attacked Bastian. She has a couple of tooth scrapes and one real bite, while he was bitten all over his body. Most of the blood was his. Emergency vet visit turned into surgery. Bella went to our regular vet the next day. She continued growling and fixating on Bastian for the following week. Bastian, normally a very friendly and outgoing personality, was terrified unless he was huddled next to one of us.

Last Sunday, all dogs were sleeping peacefully and she got up from the couch. Before she moved more than two steps away, Bella was on him again. My BFF was certain she was trying to kill him, and couldn’t get her off him. Bella didn’t respond to commands or attempts to pull her off. When Bastian finally got free (after dragging the two into the kitchen and spraying Bella in the eyes with the vegetable sprayer), he ran to hide. I got another call at work to come home, this time to take my BFF to the ER because the dogs had chewed up her arm while she was trying to break up the fight.

Fortunately, none of the bites were serious. While I did see parts of my friend that Nature had never intended me to see, she didn’t require all that many stitches, isn’t on pain pills, and is pretty much functioning fine as of today. Bastian wasn’t hurt badly enough to require the emergency vet again, and our vet said he wasn’t in bad shape, all told.

On the other hand, there was nothing more we could do for Bella. We can’t risk Bastian, or any other the other (and smaller) dogs in the house, or ourselves. We had to take her back to the Humane Society, which hurt my BFF far more than the wounds.

We don’t know why, after six months, Bella suddenly decided Bastian had to die, but she did, and it turned our house into a constant war zone. It’s a totally toad way to start a year.

I’m expecting a much more sane 2014 after this.

Same, but Different

I own a lot of Barbra Streisand album. I like her voice. Even more, I like the passion she brings to the songs she selects to record. There’s one song on her first The Broadway Album called Putting it Together. Part of the lyrics run something like “All they really want is repetition. All they really like is what they know.”

So true. So very true. When I’m sitting down to read something, to listen to music, to watch a movie–I want something I know I’m going to like. Not entirely the same thing, but enough the same that I can just enjoy it and not think too hard. If I want to be intellectually stimulated, honestly, I’m not going to turn to fiction in any form of media for that.

I’ve heard lots of writers bemoan this fact over the years. They say it stifles their creativity. They say that readers should “broaden their horizons” and give things that aren’t “repetitive” and “original” a chance.

Yet, when talking about what they like to read, they’re not willing to do what they want readers to do. Silly, isn’t it?

I’ve always wondered about this viewpoint since I’ve never agreed with it. I’ve always seen “same but different” as a freedom, a guideline, an incentive to find what my “same” would be throughout my books.

See, to me, that “same” is an inherent promise between author and reader. When I read a Dean Koontz book, there’s a whole pile of inherent promises: The story can be a thriller-oid or a horror-oid; the heroes will win; The hero, heroine, any children and all dogs will live; whatever the danger is, there is some kind of quasi-science explanation. So, when I’m in the mood for a thriller/horror story with all the Happy Ending stuff I adore, I read Koontz.

Genre Romance used to promise that the hero and heroine would meet, have a great deal of emotional angst, a lot of sexual tension, and somehow discover that they were better together than apart. Everything in the story centered around that gradual discovery. When I’m in the mood for an emotional rollercoaster with a guaranteed happy ending, I pull out my keepers. (The genre started shifting to more external conflicts between the hero/heroine, so I stopped reading much of the genre many moons ago–I’d love to hear it’s back to internal/interpersonal conflicts.)

A Stephanie Plum book is a guarantee of a very particular world view, a whole host of…interesting supporting characters and some of the most bizarre ways of destroying cars with a little adventure and mystery tossed in. Exactly the kind of story I want after a bad week at work.

All of these demonstrate what I’m talking about: “Same, but different”. When I pick up a certain author, or genre, I know what I’m getting and it’s what I’m in the mood for.

As an author, I’ve taken this to heart. What kinds of things will all of my books promise my readers? It’s part of what makes a story mine, after all.

I don’t think it’s something an author can just decide on, consciously. The unconscious is so much more powerful with this kind of decisions.

I’ve written about 20 novels to completion at this point, so I have something of a body of work to figure out what my “same” promises are, regardless of what I write.

1. The heroes will always defeat the villains. It might cost them greatly, but they will win.

2. The dog will never die.

3. Magic will never have a scientific explanation.

4. Any themes are more personal (such as responsibility and its consequences, family dynamics), but social commentary won’t be off the table.

 

As for the “Different” aspect–that’s sometimes a challenge so it doesn’t read like the same story with different names. Sure, that’s one way of doing “same, but different”–and it works well for many Big Name Authors (it’s an easy way, IMO, of gaining a recognizable “brand” in the market). I can see why writers can get bored with that quickly (self included), even if readers don’t tire of it as fast (self included).

For me, it’s looking at the various things that interest me. Because they all interest me, they have connections automatically, so mixing this and that will yield different stories–yet, they’ll always have that “Same” that marks stories as mine. It’s pretty much inevitable, don’t you agree? They all come from me, after all.

So despite the fact that I’m looking at an urban fantasy setting in my next series (Pittsburgh–with magic!), have an original world in my present MIP, and am working in a magical riff off The Three Musketeers in COTV, what makes it the same is in the heart of the stories. The locations are part of the different. Maybe that’ll be enough to interest readers. Maybe not. Time will tell.

As of yet, I don’t have one world or one set of characters that I want to follow for story after story after story. Perhaps I never will. Perhaps something I’m working on right now will grow into it. Yet another thing that makes this writing thing constantly fun and exciting, all the things you find out about yourself as well.

  • The Bag of Holding

  • Pigeon Holes