Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Some elements of good writing

I've been trying so hard to write lately, and I have ideas crowding my head and rising up in my insides and wanting to get out. But at the same time, it's that pre-school runup where schedules are insane. So instead, I've been taking notes on good writing as I read in waiting rooms and run from one kid event to another. I'm really eager to get back to my WIP! But in the meantime, I'm jotting down a few things that I keep seeing when I read that stand out as Very Good Things to Do in Your Book:

1. I think I have a fairly well developed sense of justice. So one thing that makes me really like a character is if they are essentially decent people in a world that isn't. If they quietly do their good thing without complaining, and let me, the reader, complain about injustice on their behalf, I'm hooked. Arthur in Kevin Crossley-Holland's books. Sam in Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver. Harry against the Dursleys or Umbridge or Voldemort or Snape. I'm pretty sure this is a personal thing, but I am much more sympathetic to these kinds of characters than the Bad Person Who is Misunderstood/aka Hot Bad Boy. Regardless which kind of character you like, though, standing two very different characters against each other can help saturate their colors a bit, and make them for vivid and memorable.

2. The use of weaknesses to solve the ultimate problem. I like a character with weaknesses. Someone likeable who still has something to struggle against. And I love it when they find a way to use what seemed a weakness as a strength. Brandon Sanderson's characters do this quite a lot. And even if it's not exactly a weakness, I notice this kind of "seeding" happening in other books, where the pieces crop up as the book goes along, seemingly unconnected, and then--the final piece falls into place and the MC realizes that this--THIS--is how to solve the unsolveable problem. There's a fantastic kickboxing scene at the end of The Knights of Crystallia (Alcatraz) that pulls a bunch of threads together quite awesomely. No less interesting is the way the ultimate solution in Shiver is laid out. I like this sort of thing because I like to be able to be surprised and at the same time reread and see how it was inevitable.

 3. Nouns and verbs. Specific nouns and verbs that show what kind of thing your focal character pays attention to and cares about. I still remember wanting to eat Elizabeth Bunce's book A Curse Dark as Gold when I read it the first time. I'd spent nearly two years in Germany, and while I speak Germany, my reading lags. Being me, I had a library card and checked out books all the time in German. But it was still slow going. To get a book that was in my own language, and to have such LOVELY language...well, I didn't eat it, but I came close. :) The thing with language is, it doesn't have to be all sunsets and purple. It just has to fit the character, be specific, and surprise your reader with new ways of looking at things.

4. Just as you lay in the pieces of the plot solution, you should lay in reasons for meaning. In The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, by Jennifer E. Smith, the actual on the ground plot is slight. Two people get on an airplane. They talk. They get out at the other end, and one goes to a wedding and the other to...well, not a wedding. The thing that makes the book work is all of the investment the author made so we know the meaning of the events. The MC is scared to fly. Her dad was the one who helped her over that fear. Except it's her dad's wedding she's going to--to a new wife, the woman he left their family for. So when this total stranger (but very nice! See #1) helps her through her flying fears, the whole action takes on tons more meaning. In Shiver, we get a bit of backstory about something the characters went through earlier in life. Then in the Now, we get a similar situation--only, the stakes are higher this time. We already have a clue how that character will react, which heightens the tension, because we know how much more is at stake in the Now. In Harry Potter, we have been amply shown--over pages and volumes and bucketloads of story--everything Harry stands to lose if he acts. But we've also been shown why he can't NOT act when he walks into the forest.

What about you? What have you learned about writing from reading good books?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Learning from other media (Disney's Frozen)

I'm always fascinated by the different processes people take to tell a story. Sometimes readers get offended by film adaptations because oh no, the filmmakers changed something. How dare they!! I think they'd be surprised to know just how many things change with any movie, not just a book-to-film adaptation. I saw Frozen recently, and since then my house has been full of kids listening to the soundtrack. We found outtake tracks on Youtube, and I've seen a few interviews with the filmmakers/voices/songwriters. Making a movie (especially an animated musical) involves SO many more people than a novel does--but to some extent, novels are still somewhat collaborative. You have an editor, an agent (maybe), you have an illustrator (maybe), and you possibly have experts who you consult for factual details. You have critique partners and/or beta readers. So...it's sort of similar, except on a smaller scale (and you play most of the parts).

Anyway. From what I watched, it looks like they had a concept, and chose some actors for the voices. They had scenes in mind, but they did a lot of playing around, doing rough sketches of scenes with the actors to develop the characters. (Instead of the actors just reading an already-finished script.) The songwriters said they had daily conversations with the director and producer for a year and a half before writing songs. That was to really settle the emotional core of the story, and to understand the characters. And even then, there are so many songs that didn't make the final cut--not just ones that would have been redundant, but ones that would have taken the story in different directions. (There were songs about a pageant when Anna and Elsa were little, and about a troll prophecy, and about a sword sacrifice--which didn't end up in the film at all, not even hinted at. And I think it was a good choice, because it gave the characters freedom of choice and a lot more ambiguity, instead of following a prophecy they couldn't escape.) Once they had music and script, the animators could go in and start drawing. And the actors said that the drawings in turn influenced their own body language as they voiced their lines. Oh, and the artists? They actually went to both Norway and to Wyoming for real-life experiences with the setting. With ice and snow and all the many ways they can look.

The last thing that stuck out to me was a little comment about comedy that the director and producer shared:
“Everyone can recognize the flaws in the characters, and that’s what makes them funny.”

So, what does a novelist get from that?

1. If you bump up your characters' flaws, you can safely laugh as an insider because you know just how that feels. And it’s a sharing moment for the audience/readers.

2. Going on location is great for sensory accuracy. I love writing about the places I've lived because all that research is as close as walking outside the front door. Not just sights, but colors, echoes, wind, culture, smells... all of that. If I were writing about North Dakota, I wouldn't have to stop at "it's cold." (It is.) I could also note the pink and blue and gold of a sunrise over snow, I could describe all the different textures of snow and ice that fall, and what they're like after a day of thawing or a hard freeze. I could tell you about the smells (either extreme dirty exhaust, or the almost old-blood smell of the sugar beet plant across the river). You can't get that from a photo of the town. On location is great.

3. Don't get tied into the one and only rendition of your book and think it can never be different. Just...let go of that idea entirely. Your story is not fixed in stone! And I don't mean changing a little word here or there, either. Be prepared to scrap and change whatever you have to to serve the overall story.

4. Look at all that time they spent developing characters and finding that core song or whatever to understand them. Maybe, just maybe, the plot springs from understanding your characters on a deep level, and then putting them in a room and setting them loose. What characters want, need, and lack create the plot.

So, what are readers going to take out of your book? What scenes will they still be "singing" a week later? What points are going to make them smile because they recognize their own shortcomings  in the characters?And what other things have you learned from studying film (or other creative productions)?