Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Invisible Diversity

Diversity in young adult fiction: There's plenty of great information out there already about that topic. In fact, before I get any further, I'll just leave this here:

Diversity in YA

That's a link to the Diversity in YA blog, founded by fantastic YA authors Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon.  Read it.  Talk about the stuffs on it.  Really.

There, that's done.

Now a little story.

I was driving my daughter to daycare last week and passed a fellow mowing his lawn.  Nothing unusual, except that he was black.  In our predominantly white and Hispanic town, there was only one black family that I knew of, and I had met them a few times and knew where they lived.  This guy was new.  "Yay!" I thought.  "Our town just got a little more diverse."

And it had.  But as I drove on, I thought about that happy-fuzzy feeling that "diversity" gives us (I get it looking around my workplace, for instance--a mix of races and backgrounds and ages all working together) and how, well...

...it's kind of a lie.

Not a complete lie.  Not at all.  The visible diversity that we can see absolutely represents real diversity.  But how much invisible diversity do we encounter?  How often do we dismiss a group as "not diverse" based only on what we can immediately see?

Thinking about it, my little town was pretty darn diverse even before our new neighbor moved in.  A fairly even mix of white and Hispanic families, some who had lived on the same plot of land for generations, some who just moved to town, some who just moved to this country (and not just the non-white folks--we have a decent sized population of newly naturalized Eastern European born citizens).  Farmers who are bound to the land and commuters who jog over to the next big town and live a more urban lifestyle.  People who speak English, Spanish, Polish, and Mandarin.  Gay and straight.  Folks with disabilities and able-bodied folks.  A huge range of educational levels and socio-economic statuses.

Having more people of color in young adult fiction is absolutely a worthy goal, but thinking about the kinds of diversity a small Midwestern town can contain made me consider all the ways that diversity can be invisible--unless we deliberately encounter it.

It also made me the issue of inclusiveness in my own fiction, whether or not it's by including people of color, more present as I worked on a draft yesterday.

A few ways I propose that diversity can be invisible, but no less important:

1) Sexuality.  Unless you're privy to an individual's personal life, their sexual orientation is not necessarily immediately apparent.  And as Malinda Lo mentions in her Guide to LGBT YA, it may not even be important to the story or part of what the audience is "introduced" to about a character.  Still, as writers, we often recognize that every character in our story is  the hero of his or her OWN story. If that's part of his or her story, don't ignore it, even if it's not a "visible" part of the character's self-portrayal.

2) Invisible Physical Disabilities.  We're used to associating physical disability with visual representation--a wheelchair, crutches.  But someone with debilitating arthritis, for instance, might not use a crutch, even though it impacts their daily life.

Let's not forget visual and hearing impairments, either.  Someone can be hearing or vision impaired but not what we think of as "Deaf" (unable to hear completely) or "blind" (again, complete lack of vision).  I have a friend who is severely hearing impaired, but with the use of hearing aids has functional hearing.  Not perfect, and it's still a challenge for him--but he's also not "visibly" Deaf, for example, by using ASL.

3) Other Invisible Disabilities and Variance in Mental Health.  With  more attention paid to the autism spectrum and processing disorders, invisible disabilities are getting more attention than they used to.  Which is a good thing.  Still, an awareness that people might be working through life with invisible disabilities, and that mental health issues are often silent, can help you create a richer cast of characters.

4) Socio-economic Differences.  A group of people might not visibly represent a range from poverty to affluent--but the range might be there.  Recently, we've become more aware that people struggling with poverty don't always look poor, but I haven't noticed this seeping over into how characters are portrayed very often (unless it's a story *about* that issue).  Rich kids are rich and saddled with all the markers as such--new car, expensive clothes, their house has a pool.  Poor kids live in the trailer park and have worn-out sneakers.  Most characters are just kind of comfortably middle class--which seems to be the "default" the way that "white, non-ethnic background" is a sort of default for race.  Diversity means diversity in all kinds of backgrounds--finances included.

5) Language and Culture.  Just because two people share the same race doesn't mean they share the same culture.  Two people might both check "African American" on the census, but my friend from South Africa has a very different cultural background than my friend whose family has lived in Chicago for several generations.  As I mentioned earlier, my area has a decent-sized Polish population, and that makes for cultural differences between people who, though they look very similar, have very different cultures.

And that's not even getting into language.  Speaking a different language, knowing more than one language, speaking one language at home and another at school, learning a language late, or learning a language others in your family don't know--all these can add to diversity.

None of this means that we *shouldn't* continue to include people of color.  But I propose that considering less visually obvious kinds of diversity can make us more sensitive to all ways in which people are diverse.  Being sensitive to this, being aware and inclusive, helps us to write the diverse casts that fully represent the people who make up our world.

It also opens up ways to consider diversity for those times when including people of color doesn't make sense--there are times and places in history and today where it would be out of place, and I'm not prepared to say we shouldn't write about those.  Even in those settings, however, we're still offered plenty of opportunity to engage diversity on other levels.

What are some unique ways you've encountered diversity in books or movies?  What about your own writing?

Friday, September 26, 2014

B-Movies and Writing: The Beginning of the End and Knowing Your Limits

I've blogged before about my love of B movies and the lessons they can impart to the fiction writer. I dissected the plot of Plan Nine from Outer Space to to discover what didn't work (answer? Nothing worked). I examined the effectiveness of the characters in Eegah (conclusion: when a hairy man-beast from a prehistoric era is your most likeable character, you have a problem).

Last night I indulged in The Beginning of the End, in which 1950s hysteria over atomic anything resulted in a movie about a cloud of giant locusts swarming Chicago.

I love a good giant bug movie. ThemThe Deadly MantisHorrors of Spider Island. All good stuff. In a really bad way. But they can illustrate very well the age-old principle of biting off more than you can chew.

Lesson? If you can't swallow an entire swarm of giant locusts, don't bite one. Or something like that.

So the plot is skimpy, the characters are sketches. I'm not going to nitpick this, because in your average movie about giant bugs, let's be honest--you're going for the giant bugs. Yes, the plot could have been better drawn and we could have had real, rounded characters instead of caricatures. But the problem--the real problem--with End were the bugs themselves.

It seems the creators of the film had just discovered that you could superimpose one film on another, and voila! Giant grasshoppers attacking stock footage of soldiers! Perfect!

Except...it doesn't quite work. In fact, it doesn't work at all. You just get random large bugs scuttling across the screen and not actually interacting with anything.

OK, so we can't be one-trick ponies. I know! We'll have the bugs scale a building! How to pull that off...Yes! We'll have a few grasshoppers climb a postcard of a building! That will work!

Except...the bugs are constantly stepping off the "building", which has a slightly odd glare to it.

What does this have to do with writing? After all, writers aren't special-effects artists. We don't have to worry about low budgets or non-existent technology.

But we still have to know our limits.

I might get lambasted for saying this. Still, here's the thing--we're not limited by tech capabilities or dollars in our craft, but we are limited by talent, craft, and know-how. I'm speaking from experience here, not pointing fingers at anyone but myself. Not every idea a writer has is an idea he or she can pull off--at least not yet.

Confession time: one of my drawer novels is a multi-POV project that dealt with a lot of different issues, complicated plotlines, and twists I hoped no one would see coming. There's some good writing in there--I honestly do believe that. But as a whole, it's not there yet. It's not there because I wasn't there when I wrote it. Maybe someday I could revise it and it could be sparkling. Much more likely? I'm going to revise it and pare it down to something I can tackle at the skill level I'm currently at as a writer.

That's the thing about writing--a lot of other creative crafts, too. Unlike athletic prowess or beauty-queen competitiveness, your abilities as a writer will only improve and expand with time, experience and practice. What you're not able to pull off now--maybe it's a deeply nuanced character or a rip-roaring plot--is something you'll grow into.

What I'm not saying, however, is that you don't try the stuff you can't handle. We don't grow if we don't push ourselves. Write the stuff you're not sure you can do. Dive in. Try it. When it's done, and it's a giant grasshopper mess, don't try to peddle it to the world a la The Beginning of the End. One of the greatest skills in any art is to know when you have a haunting, stunning giant bug film--and when you have a reel of celluloid covered in tobacco juice.*

Practically speaking, this is where flash fiction, short stories, and other non-novel length works can be your friend. Devoting the time to write a novel that's over your head--that's commitment to something rather shaky. (Still not saying it's bad to take the risk--but you don't have to if you don't want to.) But a short story? Experiment. Learn. Grow.
*Other people call the nasty, staining brown spit that grasshoppers produce tobacco juice, right? Or am I a hillbilly?

Friday, September 19, 2014

B-Movies and Writing : Eeegah and Character Development

I have a penchant for horrible science fiction movies. Not decent stuff like The Day the Earth Stood Still. No, terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad monstrosities like Plan 9 From Outer Space. Terror from the Year 5000. Phantom Planet. Robot Monster.

As I was enjoying Eegah last week, I couldn't help but notice what lessons a writer could learn from the mistakes made by bad filmmaking. Eegah is the story of a young woman and her father who are, for reasons not entirely explained, kidnapped by Eegah, a prehistoric caveman (who may or may not be a giant, depending on the particular camera angle at any given frame) and their rescue by the young woman's unintentionally icky boyfriend (who looks like a ferret).

So, a few lessons on making your characters likeable and believable from a movie that did the exact opposite.

1) Stop saying "Wheee." No one says "Wheee." In one otherwise useless scene, the leading lady, Roxy, and her ferret-faced boyfriend, Tom, are riding around in the sand of the California desert on his self-made dune buggy. Punctuating this scene (which got dull after the first dune, by the way) is Roxy's high-pitched squealing "Whee!" as she whoops in excitement.

The problem? No one in the real world actually says "Whee." Or does cheesy double takes or any of the various other symbolic writing/acting we see them doing in books and movies. So while you want to convey to your reader that your character is having a great time, you have to show it in ways that seem realistic--and, bonus, show the character's personality.  One person would be death-gripping the seat of that dune buggy, while another would be begging to drive it next. It's almost like cheating to just type out "Wheee!" she cried and move on with it. And the reader feels cheated, too. Give us real reactions that reveal characters...not caricatures.

2) Just because he's the protagonist doesn't mean he's automatically likeable. One of the greatest character mistakes in Eegah was the male lead--Tom the ferret-faced boyfriend. You're supposed to like him. He's supposed to come off as an overeager, good guy who's just trying to make his girlfriend's dad like him. He comes off as icky, annoying, and more than a little creepy. The fact that he insists on pulling out his guitar and singing at odd moments doesn't help. By the time he gets socked in the face by Eegah, the prehistoric cave giant, you're probably rooting for Eegah. I know I was.

The lesson? Just because he's the lead character doesn't mean the audience will automatically engage with him in a positive way. You have to work at it. You have to give us reasons to like the guy, and minimize his annoying ferret-y habits. This doesn't mean he can't be flawed--in fact, Tom doesn't have any deliberate flaws (he's just obnoxious). Show some legitimate weaknesses that let us identify with the character, not someone with nothing negative whatsoever.  Keep in mind that even his good traits can, if misused or relied on too heavily, be annoying to a reader.  Tom, for instance, whips out a guitar at every opportunity.  Instead of "sensitive music lover" this reads as "egocentric weirdo with inability to read social cues." Show background, helping the reader know where the character came from and why he is the way he is.  Flat is boring.  Give characters dimension.

On second thought, this particular character was just too annoying to fix. Scrap him and get someone else who doesn't have a ferret face. (Illustrating the inevitable moments of rewrite trumping revision.)

3) The "info plant" guy. In Eegah, the father, who is abducted first by Eegah, is some sort of scientist/anthropologist/paleontologist/writer. Yeah, that's as clear as it got. But he was super helpful for explainting Eegah's eccentricities and motivations, from discovering that the caveman's name was Eegah to deciphering the reasons he lived so long--all from spending twenty minutes in a cave with him.

The character is useful for only two things--providing a reason for the two sap-happy teens to go out in the desert (find missing Dad) and providing explanation whenever things seem wonky in the cave. Use 1 is legitimate--motivation. Use 2--not legitimate. He's a human infodump. While it can be great to have characters with insight, it has to be done carefully. No one is an expert in everything, and trying to make someone a catch-all is sure to come off as artificial. And even experts rarely get everything right the first time. Allow them some room for error. In situations that no person has ever found him or herself in before (ie, trapped in a cave with a prehistoric cave giant), they should probably suggest explanations rather than write a thesis on the subject within an hour of the first encounter.

So what about the caveman, Eegah? Probably one of the better-drawn characters in the film, despite that ridiculous fake beard. Clearly, that isn't saying much. But in a role that's half King Kong, half the "Hey You Guys" thing from the Goonies, we do get a character with a good side and a bad side (done deliberately, even)--he's lonely (we identify with him), keeps his dead family propped up against the walls of his cave (woah, creepy...and intriguing), wants to take care of his captives (aww...), but is violent when it comes to letting them go (crisis of character). Though not the best illustration, still a good example of why balance is vital to any character--too much mushy niceness and you've got a boring Hostess Snoball, too much annoying or icky and you've got a ferret-faced Twinkie. Aim for the lovely balance of a Hostess Cupcake--chocolate cake hiding the delicious filling. Or was that way too much metaphor after a really, really bad movie?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

On Being a Good Beta Reader

I have a confession.  I've been a shoddy beta reader lately.

I've been very busy with the rest of my life--work picked up, I had a ton to put together for a big reenactment event--and beta reading fell by the wayside.

My brief lapse got me thinking about the ways in which one can be a better beta.  Beta reading is not only a great way to offer help to writer-friends (WFs in my weird shorthand), but it can really help you, too.  Reading other's not-quite-there work helps you learn how to revise your own.  Plus, building relationships is a huge bonus of beta-reading.  It's my view that a beta reader can develop into a true critique partner--someone with whom you have an honest and beneficial writer-friend relationship far greater than the usual community support.  ('Cause writers tend to be pretty supportive people in general, you know!)

1) Be realistic with yourself. Simple in theory, harder in execution.

Be honest--do you have time to read and reply in a relatively prompt manner?  If not, you're not doing your WF any favors.

Do you have the chutzpah to point out negative things about the work?  This can be particularly hard, because you don't want to hurt feelings, but a vague or overly praise-filled response doesn't help your WF improve the MS.

And finally--do you even want to read this piece?  If it's not your preferred genre, if the pitch bores you because the story isn't your cup of tea, if you've read your WF's prose before and it's just not your style, and most especially, if the MS includes a trigger issue that you can't read easily, you may not be the best person to offer a critical eye to the piece.

Be honest with yourself.  And then be honest with your WF.

2) Clear expectations.  Ask your WF up front what s/he's looking for, how you can help, and what kind of timeframe s/he's expecting.

A WF who is looking for a close reading for details and language and really  hopes to hear back in a couple weeks is very different request from a WF who is looking for big-picture reader reaction and doesn't care if it takes you three months.

Consider asking what kind of comments your WF expects, too, or telling him or her what kind you can give.  Does your WF prefer in-text notation? A list of ideas?  A few paragraphs of overarching commentary?  A mix?  Clear expectations will avoid disappointment when your WF gets an email chockablock full of ideas but no in-text comments--and comments were exactly what s/he was expecting.

3) Hold up your end of the bargain.  If you say you'll be done in a month, get done in three weeks.  If you can't finish in time, or can't finish at all, let your WF know right away.  It's common courtesy, but often guilt makes us procrastinate.  Don't.  It's disappointing enough to not hear back in the timeframe you expect or be told that your beta can't finish at all--it's even worse to have this put off for weeks or months longer than is necessary.

4) Give an honest but kind report.  If there are problems, you have an obligation as a good beta reader to talk about them. Talk about them openly, non-judgmentally, and as kindly as possible.  I find that speaking from a reader's perspective, rather than a writer's, helps with this.  Instead of "Your character development with Maria was weak," I might say "I just didn't connect with Maria as a character."  I try to comment on the symptoms rather than offer a diagnosis.  As a beta reader, you're an equal with the writer--not an expert deigning to comment on her work.

And make sure to comment on the good stuff, too!  This is not only a way to buoy a WF in the face of criticism, it's exponentially helpful to hear what *does* work in a draft.

5) Keep the love going.  If you've been honored to be asked by a WF to beta read his or her project, consider asking him or her to take a look at yours.  Build the relationship.

What do you think?  Are beta readers a beneficial relationship to you as a writer?  What are some of  your tips for a good relationship?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Bad Movies and Writing: Ah, Yes. Plan 9.

Ah, yes. Plan 9. If you haven't seen the celluloid abuse that is Plan 9 From Outer Space, get thee to a rental place or Netflix and view immediately. Considered by many to be the worst film ever made, Edward D. Wood Jr.'s Plan 9 has everything wrong with it--crappy acting, terrible writing, laughable sets, wacky editing choices. An example of the absurdity: Star of the film Bela Lugosi died before filming was complete, and a stand-in who looks nothing like him is used for the rest of the film. He holds a cape over his face, so you "can't tell." Another example: The flying saucers are clearly pie plates glued together and suspended by (visible) strings, making the world's wobbliest spacecraft.

But the worst might be the plot. The strings holding the story together are, unfortunately, much more tenuous than those suspending the pie plate saucers. In short, it's not one of those "good story, bad execution" problems--but I managed to glean some lessons for writing while giggling uncontrollably at the chaos.

You Can't Do It All : Cross-genre works are great. It's fun to read a romance with urban fantasy elements, or a historical mystery. But try to do too much and you have a hot mess. That's what happens with Plan 9. Somehow, Ed thought it would be a good idea to combine aliens with zombies with hardboiled cops with a nice newlywed couple with an anti-nuclear-weapons message. Yeah. And I had you thinking "bad idea" at aliens and zombie. Even the plan itself is a bit of a mess: Famously, the titular plan is "a long-range electrode shot to the pituitary gland of the recent dead" bringing them back to life. Sort of. Performed, of course, by the aliens. Lesson learned: Pare it down. Decide what the most important elements of your story are, and develop them into strong storylines, rather than creating plot soup of half-baked ideas (and how's that for mixing metaphors?).

The Character/Plot Balance : It can be debated into the ground whether characters or plot come first in developing a story. A lot may come down to whether it's an action-driven, plot-heavy story or a character-driven literary work, but regardless, there needs to be a balance. Neither the plot nor the characters can drive the story by themselves--at least without it crashing and burning. One of the main problems with Plan 9's plot is that Ed Wood seems to have taken the collection of characters and tried to build a story around them.  Vampira, a late-night movie host who looks like, well, a vampire. Tor Johnson, a gigantic Swedish wrestler whose other film roles include "wrestler" "torturer" and "Lobo." And Bela Lugosi--or, more apt, stock footage of Bela Lugosi salvaged from another film Ed tried to shoot with him before he died. Stock footage that happens to include him bumbling about outside his home and standing in a cemetery. What else do you do with that creepy/kooky cast of characters but make a movie about alien-controlled undead? Ok, probably a lot of other ideas come to mind. But the lesson is, take a balanced approach to what goes into the work, and be flexible. Not every character who pops into your head needs to go in this story. Save some. Work on the plot, and see what characters the story might need. Stretching a story to fit characters that don't quite work is quite likely to produce something pretty warped.

Keep it Straight : Inventing strange new people, places and things is part of the fun of writing. But when you can't keep your newly formed creations straight it just comes across as sloppy. Take the ultimate destructive weapon in Plan 9 : Solarite. Or maybe it was Solarmite. Or Solarmanite. Let's ignore the fact that a chain reaction weapon that "explodes particles of light" is a pretty goofy idea and just go with the problem that it's called at least five different things throughout the course of a rather short movie. Lesson? You're the creator--if you can't keep your creations straight, no one else can, either. One particularly good idea for complicated stories and series is to make your own cheat sheet--more on this found here and also here.

And not exactly Plot-Specific, but...

Dont' Cut Corners : All the elements of writing and editing are hard work. It takes a lot of effort to ensure cohesion and smooth styling. And it's funny--the less attention you pay to the details, the more your audience's attention will be drawn to them. You want to create a flowing, realistic picture, but when something sneaks in that doesn't belong--an odd POV switch, an incongruous character trait, a police officer who gestures and scratches his head with his gun (above right), a scene that goes from daylight to night back to daylight again in the space of two minutes (Ed, come on!), the audience snaps away from the story and stares at that sore thumb jabbing its way into the scene. So, as they say, the devil is in the details, so keep an eye on them. Ed didn't. Learn from Ed.

And, in the meantime...

Do yourself a favor and escape with some popcorn and some Ed Wood awful-ness.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Saving the Best for Last

I have a friend who loves Dickens.  (I don't hold this against her.)  She's read and loved everything old Chuck wrote, from the well-known Great Expectations  and Christmas Carol stock to the lesser known short stories and novellas.

What she hasn't read?  Our Mutual Friend.

And I loved her reason--she's saving it.

Dickens is, in his own colorful terms, "dead as a doornail" so certainly isn't writing any more.  Once you've read the last plot twist, the last unique character, the last ending,  you're done. You can re-read, of course--and I'm a huge proponent of re-reading beloved novels--but the last surprise has been had.

I just bought a new book this weekend--four novels in one volume by one of my absolute favorite writers, Irene Nemirovsky.   Though Nemirovsky died in 1942 (ethnically Jewish, she was sent to a Auschwitz and died there at the age of 39), I have one advantage over my friend and Dickens--not all of her work has been translated or is readily available in English printings.  But the impulse to "save" at least one of her books remains.

When I compare this to fangirling over a living favorite author, the impulse makes a lot of sense.  We eagerly await the publication of the next novel, the start of a new series, the conclusion of a beloved trilogy.  When there will be no more new novels, saving books becomes a way to preserve that excitement.

Sound like something that would appeal to you?  A few ways to save a favorite:

1) Pick a "start" date and read your favorite author in the order he or she was published, with the original wait times in between books.  So, for instance, start with Dickens' The Pickwick Papers in "1837" (ie, today) and read Oliver Twist two years from now (in "1839").  Following his publication history, you have about 28 years (!!!) of reading.

2) Pick milestones to celebrate by reading an unread book by your favorite author.  For instance, read a new book every five years on milestone birthdays.

3) Classic authors are constantly being released in new editions--and some are downright gorgeous.  Wait for a "new release" and buy a beautiful book.

4) Wait to read with someone else.  For instance, parents and grandparents can wait until kids or grandkids are old enough for the author, then read a book you've never read together.

What do you think--does "saving" books make sense?  Or would you rather devour your favorite author's work without leaving a morsel untouched?

Friday, September 5, 2014

Confession: I Love Crappy B-Movies

I love bad old movies.  If it involves a radioactive gigantic bug trying to eat a major American city, or a prehistoric creature birthed from a glacier attacking coastal Japan, or aliens or mad scientists or Creatures from Any Black Body of Water, I'm in.

Proof?  This is the poster decorating my living room wall:

Yes, John Agar's notquiteclassic about a subterranean civilization.  And mole people, of course.

Little known fact: "B" in "B Movie" does not stand for "Bad" or "B-Grade" but for "Budget."  They were movies made with lower budgets and often released directly to dive theaters and drive-ins rather than taking up precious marquee space.  Because who goes to the drive-in to actually watch the movie, right?  But they often were pretty Bad, too.

In any case, what do crappy B movies have to do with writing?

They're excellent examples of what not to do.  

Seriously.  Writers should read, a read widely, and learn from good books and bad, most certainly.  But the storytelling in film can teach some valuable lessons, too--and a 90 minute investment in a bad movie is a quicker route to what not to do than slogging through a poor example in book form.

So--Fridays are now Movie Day here at the blog.  I'll post about one of my favorite (bad) movies, and then break down what goes horribly wrong. 

In the meantime, enjoy these clips from Ed Wood's Plan Nine from Outer Space, considered by many to be the worst film ever made: