If you can’t trust yourself…

Standard

Insecurity.

When it hits you, it hits you like a ton of bricks and a freight train.

I was such a rebel for such a long time. In AP art class in high school I butted heads with a teacher who wouldn’t accept fantasy-inspired artwork. She had several good reasons for this, including pushing me to learn techniques and getting me to create something that the AP board would like.

But she didn’t realize–or didn’t care about–the long term ramifications. I couldn’t feel something for a still life. I started a bunch of self portraits and got sick of my face so fast I nearly burned some. Fantasy images made me feel something, let me tell a story, transported me. They were beautiful.

It was drilled into me that this was my dysfunction–that the rest of the world was moved by normal things like bowls of apples and I was the freak for thinking forest-dwelling spellcasters and blind oracles mattered. In a fit of rebellion, I decided I would go with my heart and fill my portfolio with images from my stories. I came up with dozens of sketches and finished a huge watercolor in one night. For the first time in that class, I was happy.

Then I brought the first painting I’d ever felt proud of into critique…and I was shut down so hard it’s a wonder I was ever able to draw again.

After that, I tried to inject myself into my work in little ways, but I never recovered. I drew portraits. Adequate. Nothing special. I passed the AP.

Even in college, when I clarified with the teacher multiple times that I could draw whatever I wanted, I still stuck largely to safe, adequate images for a long time before I could create things I cared about again.

I ran into something similar with my writing program at college. Every class had a strict requirement: no genre fiction, so no fantasy, no sci-fi, no mystery suspense thrillers. It made me a better writer. I couldn’t hide behind a high concept, I had to actually focus on plot and characters. It worked wonders for me, and I managed to sneak a little bit of my style sometimes. And I still wrote fantasy on the side.

I needed that limitation. I did. But after four years of  “Literary Fiction,” after hearing an English major disavow Odd Thomas because Dean Koontz was “the poor man’s Stephen King,” after smothering the urge to give someone in a story super powers, and after reading acres of literature when all I wanted to do was get the newest Mortal Instruments book, it started to sink in.

When I try to hold onto my identity as a writer, there’s a little voice in the back of my head (that sounds remarkably like my AP art teacher) that checks my enthusiasm: because if I feel something about it, it’s probably not high art. If it matters to me, no one else will care. For years I’ve been told not to trust my own perceptions, and I’m starting to internalize that.

To clarify, I can handle critique. I love critique. I learn more interesting things from people who don’t like my creations than those who do.

I’m talking not about criticism but about a steady broadcast into my brain over the years that says “What you make isn’t good enough. Dumb, normal people will like it but real artists with taste will know better. If you’re not alienating everyone, you’re doing it wrong. If they feel swept along by the story, you’re doing it wrong. If that book you loved was an easy and fun read, you shouldn’t love it.”

I used to be so good at tuning that out. I used to be so sure of my own perceptions, so sure I was right, but at some point I stopped trusting myself. Maybe after a while you’re still fighting on the outside but losing on the inside.

I’m trying to get my confidence back so I can figure out what I should be writing. But it’s hard. If anyone has any words of wisdom, I’d appreciate it. These words from Dean Koontz’s io9 interview have been comforting:

There’s all these rules of publishing that I don’t think anybody’s ever thought through. And I just started, many years ago, saying, “I don’t care. I have to entertain me first, and I have a low boredom threshold.” I write what I want to write, and I hope the public goes along with it, because I cannot do anything else. I couldn’t do plumbing, for instance, because I am totally incompetent at anything requiring tools. You do what you’re really enthusiastic about doing. And readers react to it, if they know your heart’s in it.

But then again, he’s just the poor man’s Stephen King, so if I was a true artist and knew better I wouldn’t be looking to him for advice.

Sigh.

Reccomended Read: The Host

Standard

Yes, The Host. By Stephanie Meyer.

Yes, I’m a serious writer and I’m recommending a Stephenie Meyer book. Just bear with me and let me get on to my argument for why this weird little big story is worth your time.

What it’s about:

The Host begins after the human race has already been taken over by parasitic aliens called souls who colonize worlds in order to “improve” them, making them more peaceful, eliminating money, providing free health care, etc. A soul named Wanderer is put in the body of a girl named Melanie so the aliens can find out if Melanie was part of a larger human resistance.

But Melanie has no intention of vacating to make room for Wanderer. Though she can’t regain control of her body, she fires memories of her loved ones at the soul inside her until Wanderer falls in love with them too. Together,  strike out to locate the last stronghold of humanity.

They find a small settlement led by Melanie’s conspiracy theorist uncle Jeb, who was paranoid enough to hide out when things started going downhill. From then on the story becomes a psychological drama as the remaining humans struggle to deal with their new alien roommate.

Why it’s awesome:

The extraordinary thing about The Host is that Meyer seems to have struck upon the perfect situation to expose every facet of human nature, good and bad. Wanderer, later referred to as Wanda, is fundamentally gentle and self-sacrificing, while Melanie (reduced to a voice in Wanda’s head) is passionate and violent. Melanie stirs things in Wanda that, as a peace-loving soul, she shouldn’t feel, while Wanda’s kindness and courage earn her Melanie’s frustration and eventually respect.

What really makes this book a petri dish of humanity is each human’s reaction to the alien presence. Some treat her as an enemy who’ll endanger their small colony. Others warily accept her. Some can’t figure out how to distinguish Wanda’s consciousness from Melanie’s, but others can tell exactly which one is in control.

Wanda slowly learns that the human tendency toward extreme emotions like violence also allows them to feel love more deeply than any other species she’s encountered. The same love for his makeshift family that motivates Ian to try to kill Wanda also drives him to protect her when he realizes that she’s a person too.  Doc’s need to heal forces him to commit atrocities against Wanda’s people. Jared’s love for Melanie prompts his hatred for the alien that took her away.

It takes an alien to make the scattered survivors realize what it means to be human. Through Wanda, we see that the ugliness of humanity is tied inextricably with what makes humanity beautiful.

And for those of you who are worried, there’s no creepy pedo-werewolf stuff. The ending is one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever read, mostly because Wanda has to fight tooth and nail every step of the way to get it. She earned her ending, and in every way it’s perfect, poignant and wonderful.

The movie comes out on March 29.  I’m already in love with the cast and I can’t wait to see how it comes out.

But mostly I can’t wait to see this pretty boy:

Ian has spoiled men for me forever. So has Jake Abel.

Filler vs. Plot: “Legend of Korra” and “Supernatural”

Standard

ImageOnly a few short months ago, I declared to pretty much anyone that would listen that “Legend of Korra” was set to outstrip its predecessor, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” My evidence for this? The lack of filler.

“Avatar” took a while to find its groove, especially in season one. There were a lot of random daytrips, a healthy dose of sillyness, and a lot of character expansion.

Going into “Korra,” the writers decided they wanted to take a more streamlined and direct approach to the show, diving right into the action and staying with the main plot. I thought that this would be a change for the better. The action popped, the intensity didn’t let up, and the fight scenes were to die for.

But after a while, it felt like something was missing.

While filler does little to advance the plot, it works wonders for underdeveloped characters. Often you get to see the world of the story from a different perspective, or characters learn something important about themselves that will change the rest of their journey.

For instance, Sokka in “Avatar” would still be an obnoxious sexist if he hadn’t met Suki in the Kyoshi Warriors episode. Toph and Katara would still hate each other if they hadn’t come to understand each other in “The Runaway.”

As awesome as the first season of “Korra” was, it was sorely lacking in that department. Asami is struggling under a lack of personality—pretty much she has daddy issues and drives cars. Just one Asami-focused episode might have pulled her out of that. And come on, Commander Iroh had what, three lines? Not cool, man.

Image

I want to like you, Asami! I really do!

Prepare yourself, I’m about to make a weird analogy.

So the way I see it, the plot is like a water snake. At first you’re like, oh, it’s a stick. Then it becomes increasingly clear that it’s a snake. You can only see the coils that break the surface occasionally. Then finally the head rears up and attacks you.

The first five seasons of “Supernatural” nailed the balance between the overarching plot and the week-to-week story.

Take season two of Supernatural. [SPOILERS AHEAD] The snake under the surface are the kids with psychic powers. Every so often, coils of the snake break the surface—a psychic kid here, a revelation there—until BAM, good ol’ yellow eyes (a plot snaking through since season 1) throws the psychic kids into a crazy deathmatch and (literally) all hell breaks loose. [END SPOILERS]

Image

I’m pretty sure he couldn’t see a thing through those contacts.

Because “Supernatural” knew exactly when to reveal the larger plot and when to focus more on their monster-of-the-week format, we got both character and plot development.

In Avatar, the snake was always on the surface. We didn’t have time to think we were safe, or go on a side adventure, or wonder where the series finale was headed.

When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 came out, a lot of reviewers were enamored with the quiet little scene where Harry and Hermione dance in the tent. The moment meant nothing to the plot, but it offered us a glimpse of what these characters mean to each other and reminded us that they’re just kids dealing with a terrifying situation.

Which leads us to another intangible: Heart.

You’ll hear it all the time in movie reviews, but it’s really hard to pinpoint what gives a story “heart.” I’ll probably go into more detail in a later post, but for the purposes of this one, well-done filler helps give a story heart. It gives you a chance to slow down and dwell in the world of these characters, kind of like hanging out with co-workers over coffee instead of in the office.

We got plenty of great character moments in “Korra,” but no full episodes. The closest thing to a filler episode was “The Spirit of Competition,” which was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise all-action series. It didn’t advance the plot, but it gave us insight into Mako and Bolin’s relationship, and let’s be honest: Who doesn’t want to see more of Bolin?

Image

“You’re not my brother! You’re a brother BETRAYER!”

Exploring the balance between meandering filler and plot can alter the flow and feel of a series. Chime in with your comments and let me know what you think of filler episodes/moments in movies/TV/books!

Can comic relief characters carry a story?

Standard

I wanted to tackle this topic because it’s becoming increasingly relevant in a movie culture that’s all about sequels and spinoffs, and also because I touched on “funny characters” in my post about “cool characters.”

There’s a belief among moviegoers and critics that comic relief characters can’t carry their own movies. The argument is that with the weight of the story on them, funny characters either a) become too serious in order to advance the plot, or b) are too silly to make people care about their stories.

I disagree with this assessment as much as I disagree with the (rapidly fading) belief that female protagonists can’t carry a film, which I will expand on later.

Let’s explore some recent examples:

Puss In Boots

I have to say, I was pretty excited for this movie. The commercials looked hilarious and I loved Puss in the Shrek series.

It killed me that the movie wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, because I knew people would blame the film’s mediocre quality on the fact that Puss can’t hold his own as a main character.

The problems don’t come from Puss though, because they changed his character. Seriously. Watch Shrek 2. Puss is a sneaky, conniving character who gleefully asks to shave Donkey in his sleep and takes money to kill an ogre. He’s a pretty scummy character, admittedly a scummy character with his own code of honor. In Puss in Boots, he’s repainted as a smooth-talking outlaw with a heart of gold. Boring.

Sure, you can argue that it’s a prequel and maybe he got saucy and immoral later in life, but then doesn’t that negate the whole redemption plot that happens in Puss In Boots?

The second problem is the unexciting, overdone plot. Which is LITERALLY IDENTICAL to the plot for Pirates Of The Carribean: On Stranger Tides, another movie that gave a comic side character the spotlight.

Pirates Of The Carribean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates 4 went in the opposite direction of Puss In Boots, turning Jack Sparrow into a caricature of himself and depriving him of purpose.

You’ve probably heard that each character you create has to want something. Badly.Puss in Bootsat least got that right: Puss desperately wants to restore his honor so his adoptive mother can be proud of him. Jack doesn’t want anything, not really, unless you count stumbling drunkenly from point A to point B without getting killed. He’s not an active character.

I would argue that the subplot with the mermaid and the priest is more interesting because both of those characters want something and actively pursue it. The mermaid wants to survive and the priest is determined to protect her. Because they want something, they propel their own story, rather than letting it propel them as Jack does.

The disappointing thing is that Jack is much more interesting when he wants something. Think Curse of the Black Pearl, that pistol with one bullet. In the beginning of the film he points the gun at Will and begs him to move because the bullet is meant for someone else. He wants to put that bullet in someone’s head, and he’s willing to risk his life rather than shoot the wrong person. That’s purpose, and that makes Jack intriguing.

Fool

This line of thinking goes as far back as Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s fools are often his smartest, most articulate characters, but they’re never leads. Which I think is severely unfair. I even wrote a play about it, I was so annoyed (it’s called “Jacks and the Fourth Wall.” Tell yo friends).

There’s actually extensive scholarship about the fool in “King Lear” that Shakespeare had to cut him out of the second half because he was taking over the play. You know why? Because he was a GREAT CHARACTER.

Seriously. It’s implied he had strong loyalties to Cordelia and was angry when Lear sent her away, he’s wildly passive-aggressive,  and even though his boss is nuts, you can tell that he cares for him, just a little. He’s hilarious and he’s a well-rounded character.

So much so that Christopher Moore was able to write a whole (AWESOME) book from his perspective.

Read it. Seriously. It’s great.

Fool is “King Lear” as told (and orchestrated) by his jester, Pocket. It shifts the quintessential Shakespearean tragedy to the perspective of a comic side character, and it works. because Moore crafts Pocket as a full character with his own agenda, dreams and demons without sacrificing his sense of humor. Pocket has a purpose outside being funny, but he’s still hilarious.

I read an article  recently (I can’t remember where, I wish I could) that addressed the idea that female superhero movies are inevitably bad. They pointed out that this belief comes primarily from movies like Elektra and Catwoman. When The Hulk failed, no one blamed it on a male protagonist. Elektra and Catwoman failed because they sucked as films, not because they featured female protagonists.

The same can be said for stories with comedic main characters. They can carry a story (an awesome story!) as long as they’re multidimensional and want something badly, and as long as the plots you write for them aren’t rote and boring.

“Being funny” is a trait, not a character motivation. Comic characters can carry a story, but comedy alone can’t carry them.

Character Bootcamp: Part 1

Standard

So I love characters. I love making them. I love learning about them. I love when they do things I don’t expect. If I had to pick one strong point of my own writing, it would probably be characters. Therefore, I would like to introduce…

Character Bootcamp: Part 1
Knock them off their high horse.

When I first started writing, I was sure of one thing. There were funny characters, and then there were cool characters. Funny characters could slip and fall in mud, blurt something they meant to keep secret, make awkwardly nerdy references at serious moments.

Cool characters, however, were blessed with flawless coordination, a total inability to be ruffled, and a lack of surprise at the world around them. They couldn’t step in dog poop, they couldn’t get sick and babble nonsense, they couldn’t accidentally walk into a wall in a dark room. Because they were cool. And cool characters were untouchable.

I was sure of this dichotomy. That is until I realized how fun it is to screw with cool characters.

I’m serious. It’s SO. MUCH. FUN.

Case and point: Loki from Avengers.

Image

He’s pompous. Theatrical. He’s such a clever manipulator that they actually MUZZLED him at the end of the movie so he couldn’t talk. He was in charge of a massive alien army and had a cool power staff. Loki is a serious, seriously cool threat.

And yet the best (and funniest) moments in Avengers came when the unparalleled Joss Whedon showed us that even power-hungry deities can be a little, well, pathetic. Without spoiling anything, I’m referring to “performance issues” and “puny god.”

When we see the coolest characters debased, when we get to laugh at them, it shows us that there’s someone like us under all the posturing.

There was an Entertainment Weekly Review of “Archer,” “Eastbound & Down” and “Delocated” that used a phrase I absolutely loved. They were discussing how viewers can keep watching shows that feature offensive egomaniacs and said “How can these offensive men remain so watchable? They’re all self-assured goofballs who are regularly punished for their hubris. The message of this trio of shows is reassuring: A-holes — they’re just like us!”

I couldn’t figure out why I loved “Archer” so much until I read that review. It’s because Archer, who’s pretty much James Bond without any semblance of a moral code, is regularly humiliated by mommy issues, a crippling fear of crocodiles and his own incompetency. You put up with his ego because you know he’s going to get screwed over soon anyway. And you almost kind of like him for it.

So try it. Go against all your instincts and walk that mysterious elf warrior right into a tree, then watch how flustered he gets when he tries to regain his coolness (it’s okay to giggle at him—he can’t hear you). Punish your characters for their hubris. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a comedy or a serious epic. Readers want to know that characters aren’t above them.

Character Examples: Zuko from “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle, Skulduggery from Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, pretty much everyone in “Supernatural”

Who’s this punk with a blog?

Standard

My name’s Alanna Smith. I started writing YA novels when I was in seventh grade because a friend threatened me with death if I didn’t and she had sharp pokey fingers. I never stopped, and I’m beginning to explore dramatic writing and short fiction as well.

I got bitten with the book bug when my dad read me our shiny gold 50th Anniversary edition of The Hobbit. Since then I’ve been a voracious (see: obsessive) reader. I love weird, potentially unstable characters and I love it even more when they talk to people. I also love dramatic twists and fantastical situations.

I worked as a creative writing teaching assistant for a while and–though I don’t see myself going down a teaching path–I still love helping people with their writing and sharing what I’ve learned from years of screwing up and figuring out how to do things better.

I graduated from college in May and my job right now is hunting wild jobs and writing. A lot. I figured nothing would help me organize my feelings on writing in this major transitional period than writing them down, and why not share them with people while I’m at it?

Many of my ideas revolve around character development, so I’ll probably start with that (I love me some awesome characters). Stick around if you want! You might learn something!