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Category Archives: Art

W: When Characters Attack!

W: When Characters Attack!

What happens when a writer grows weary of his characters?

What happens when they fight back?

One is reminded of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempting to rid himself of Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls, or the author in Stranger Than Fiction whose protagonists never make it out alive.

Or perhaps the writer realizes she’s dug herself into a literary hole and doesn’t know when or how to end the story. (Lost, I’m lookin’ at you. And you, too, Once Upon a Time, which should have lasted only a season or two, before you misused your great cast and intriguing premise to go screaming off the rails into soap opera badlands.)

W is a 2016 South Korean television drama in the vein of Stranger Than Fiction, Secret Window, The Truman Show, The God Hater, and other stories where the characters confront or interact with their authors, their audiences, or their creators. In this series, comicbook characters become aware of their fictionhood and enter the real world to confront their creator.

First, the protagonist learns why a shadowy figure is trying to kill him and turns the tables on his creator. then the villain also realizes he can enter the other dimension, and demands of the creator a face and an identity.

How the story begins:

Kang Cheol has a few loyal associates upon whom he relies, but when a mysterious woman saves his life more than once, he’s intrigued. Although the police are seeking her as a material witness and a suspect in the multiple attempts on his life, Kang Cheol hides her in order to protect her not only from the police but also from his murderous stalker.

Meantime, his television station, W—which stands for Who and Why—broadcasts and solves cold cases that the police have abandoned. He has earned a golden reputation in society for his ingenuity, wealth, generosity, and dogged pursuit of justice.

Oh Yeon Joo is alerted by her father’s fellow artists that he is missing. He went into his office one day, and although he was never seen leaving, he cannot be found. As she’s standing in his office, searching for clues, a bloody hand reaches through his art tablet and pulls her into the world of W. Without valid ID, money, or other resources, she attempts to navigate the comicbook world and find a way back to her own.

Oh Seung Moo has made his fortune and his reputation with W, finally rising from obscurity to fame with the bestselling series. Why, then has he written an abrupt ending for the protagonist—a bloody death without the satisfaction of a solved crime? After all, fans have been awaiting the revelation of the villain who killed Kang Cheol’s family.

But Kang Cheol will not die, and he begins to affect the story from the other side of the tablet. Seung Moo is no longer in control of his creation.

Has Seung Moo run away, unable to cope with success? Or is he suffering a common literary malady—an inability to properly resolve the story?

And why does Kang Cheol believe Yeon Joo is “the key to my life”?

The answer to that, my friends, is a plot twist.

At only 16 episodes long, W is fast-paced. However, it does slow down a little on occasion, allowing the viewer to catch his or her breath and often poking gentle fun at kdrama tropes.

The cinematography is excellent, and the special effects—as characters pass from one world to the next, or as pieces of the comic are drawn and then appear in the webtoon world—are top-notch and deceptively simple. Some effects are in-camera rather than digital, lending a level of reality to the cartoon world.

W would fit nicely into any of these genres: horror, fantasy, thriller, mystery, suspense, romance, action, and more. It is twisty, unpredictable, and references many kdrama tropes then refreshes the cliches to turn the story in unexpected directions.

The reason for so many genres intermingling is due to the story being hijacked by the characters, who don’t know the cartoonist’s plans but simply want to live. And to live on their own terms.

Story themes include existence, humanity, determining one’s own life/destiny/future, and the roles and relationships among god/creator, devil/antagonist, and allies and enemies. Choices have consequences—and the choices and consequences become manifold as fictional characters no longer follow the plot but assert their wills on the story. Viewers of varying philosophies or worldviews will find this an intriguing tale.

Currently, W is available on Viki, which allows viewers to comment during the show. However, during your first viewing of the show, I suggest turning off the scrolling comments at the top of the video window, as they can be distracting, annoying, downright funny. Best to watch without them, until you view the show a second time.

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Gotcha Covered

Last night’s writer’s meeting was ill-attended; only three of us showed up. However, that allowed me to seek advice from the librarian who leads the group, and ask her how the exteriors of books affect 1) inclusion in the library’s collection, and 2) reader choice.

Concerned about my preference for simplicity in artwork or design, I was surprised — and yet not — by her responses. Sure, if the artwork is cheesy and/or seems at odds with the subject matter, the staff might have a laugh, but what’s most annoying to them are book covers so minimalistic they reveal nothing about the content. She mentioned one publisher that tends toward such spareness there’s no artwork or even a description of the plot. Just the title and the author’s name.

So simplicity of decoration is fine, but tell readers about the story. Give ’em some reason to choose your book.

“If the reader flips to the back to read the blurb, you’re almost guaranteed they’ll check out the book.”

Then she looked at my rough draft for the cover of Thieves Honor. It looked like a thriller, not science fiction, but the fix was easy: She suggested I flip the background image, so the front became the back, and vice versa. The color gradiant and the angle of the light changed, giving the illusion of outer space rather than what the photo actually portrays — a table, a wooden chair, and the light from my computer screen all running together into a tie-dye abstraction of formless color.

The current draft of the front cover:

in-progress cover (c2016, KB)

in-progress cover (c2016, KB)

So, can I get away with no focal image on the cover, or is some artwork still needed? And is the look too “homemade” to be taken seriously?

For reference, the original image in its original orientation:

Abstraction (c2016, KB)

Abstraction (c2016, KB)

 

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Oklahoma City Lights

Last week, a fellow editor/writer and I met to work out a few details on a project and ended up hanging out until after dark. We ate supper at The Garage — great burgers and tasty fish tacos — and I brought the camera for our stroll, just in case. Unfortunately, it had the short lens (shallow depth of field, 1:1 ratio), so there’s less detail and more blurring than I’d like.

This first image is of a parking garage, looking rather sci-fi or action-scene-like:

parking garage (c2015, KB)

parking garage (c2015, KB)

I edited the next photo to show the heat map, because the dim lighting was insufficient to show detail, such as the spiral fire escape strung on wires above the common space between two buildings. It’s surreal and quirky and cool, but something keeps me from wanting to walk underneath it. 😉

"flying" fire escape (c2015, KB)

“flying” fire escape (c2015, KB)

The image below is a fuzzier version of one I shared on Facebook a few days ago. It’s the Devon Tower in downtown Oklahoma City, otherwise known as the Eye of Sauron.

Devon Tower a/k/a Sauron's other lair (c2015, KB)

Devon Tower a/k/a Sauron’s other lair (c2015, KB)

Miscellaneous images below of old buildings, Christmas lights, and alleyways:

"Cinemascope" lends an older feel to the already old structure (c2015, KB)

“Cinemascope” lends an older feel to the already old structure (c2015, KB)

a misty, oblique shot that almost transports the viewer to an Old World city (c2015, KB)

a misty, oblique shot that almost transports the viewer to an Old World city (c2015, KB)

another blurry shot, this time of Christmas lights blanketing businesses near Automobile Alley (c2015, KB)

another blurry shot, this time of Christmas lights blanketing businesses near Automobile Alley (c2015, KB)

alley behind businesses that front Automobile Alley (c2015, KB)

alley behind businesses that front Automobile Alley (c2015, KB)

same alley, Christmas lights in a closed cafe (c2015, KB)

same alley, Christmas lights in a closed cafe (c2015, KB)

industrial-like structure abutting the alley (c2015, KB)

industrial-like structure abutting the alley(c2015, KB)

 

Below are variations on a theme. These images were taken before I departed the parking lot beside the alley. I was ready to drive away, but caught sight of the spiral fire escape in my rearview mirror. The result is a surreal mix of that reflection and of the alley beside the car.

The ghostly figure in the background is of a passerby walking her dog.

(c2015, KB)

(c2015, KB)

IMG_3331^light

(c2015, KB)

IMG_3332^b-w

(c2015, KB)

IMG_3332^HDR soft

(c2015, KB)

IMG_3332^light

(c2015, KB)

IMG_3332^infrared

(c2015, KB)

IMG_3332^invert colors

(c2015, KB)

Something tells me I need to spend more time downtown, and this time bring a tripod to help hold the camera steady.

NOTE: all images property of Keanan Brand

 

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Pilgrimage, Heroic Fantasy, and Robin Hood

Pilgrimage, Heroic Fantasy, and Robin Hood

The difference between wanting to write and having written is…hard, relentless labour. It’s a bridge you have to build all by yourself, all alone, all through the night, while the world goes about its business without giving a damn. The only way of making this perilous passage is by looking at it as a pilgrimage. ― Shatrujeet Nath

What a pilgrimage it has been — and it’s far from ended.

I meant to write a blog post last month, or perhaps the month before, about the most influential character I ever encountered as a reader, and thought the character and the words would come pouring forth with ease.

I shoulda known better.

My imagination went into hiding, I seemed to forget every story I’d ever read, and all the words evaporated like summer rain in the desert.

HFQ 6x9 front cover ONLY-croppedAdd to that sudden betrayal by my brain the equally sudden request from my friends at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly: They’d finalized the stories and poems for their anthology, and were ready for me to do my part — design and format the book.

I’d been preparing for this event for about two years. It is one of several reasons I published Dragon’s Rook after almost throwing it away. Needing material on which to practice, I heavily revised the novel and restructured it, then learned how to format it for print and e-book, and then — with the artwork and cover design from a friend — published it independently. The experience and skills gained from that process has been put to excellent use in helping bring HFQ’s anthology to the public.

Words may have hidden from me, but book formatting is a different kind of creativity.There wasn’t much time to bemoan the lack of storytelling or blog posting — there was a cover to design, and text to manipulate, and fonts to sample. And a deadline to meet.

Still, I pondered which character(s) could be considered “the most influential”, but didn’t know the answer until it strolled onto the scene in a private message exchange on social media. A fellow writer said he was preparing to read my book, but had lost some of his enthusiasm for the genre.

There’s more to his message, and more to my reply, but this is the portion pertinent to this post:

(I)f you proceed, I hope you’re pleasantly surprised. People see swords and dragons, and they form opinions without knowing how those items are used in the story. Rather than being a Tolkien knock-off or a GRRM wannabe, Dragon’s Rook is its own thing.

Couldn’t duplicate GRRM or Robert Jordan or most others, even if I tried, because I’ve never read them. My reading is mainly in other genres — detective mysteries, for example.

The main stylistic influence is Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, a book which led to trouble one summer when I confessed to having read it x number of times and was about to read it again. Dad decided I needed to get out more, so he made my brother and me cut and haul pine on BLM land that needed to be cleared, and then we stacked it at our house in preparation for winter. (Yes, I have stories about stories.)

Bingo! Robin Hood! How did I not realize that before?

a photo of the rough front cover of my beloved Velveteen-Rabbit-ed copy (KB)

a photo of the front cover of my beloved Velveteen-Rabbit-ed copy (KB)

He isn’t the only character who has influenced my life once I read his/her story, but Robin i’ the Hood certainly had an impact on my plans that summer.

My dad meant to make me exercise and soak up sunlight, but he’s also the one who introduced me to this edition of the book, and he used to read portions aloud, so — loving it as he did — what did he expect but that I would love it, too?

I loved it so much, in fact, that the copy pictured here has begun to fall apart. Several years ago, I purchased a replacement copy — in much better shape, almost pristine — of this very same edition. It is the best, mimicking an illuminated text, and rich with color and action.

I’ve read other versions by other authors, but none beats Howard Pyle’s. It’s robust, full of humor and tragedy and exploits, and it fired my imagination until I composed pale imitations of the adventures of Robin and his merry band.

In seeking for something Robin-like, I stumbled upon other classic tales, such as Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.

You guessed it. That book’s falling apart, too.

 

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Through the Stacks

Snapped this while waiting at the library a couple weeks ago, before a writers meeting:

 

c2015, KB

c2015, KB

 

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Scathing: Receiving Criticism, Avoiding Labels, and Redacting a Review

Scathing: Receiving Criticism, Avoiding Labels, and Redacting a Review

Ever been labeled something that puzzled you?

Recently, a fellow writer wrote that I was unethical. At first, I thought she meant someone else, and thought, “What does she mean? That’s not true of that person,” but then realized she referenced a blog post I wrote last year regarding how pride can get in the way of receiving feedback or criticism. No names were mentioned. In fact, the only person readers knew was involved was me, and I admitted that even now, after decades as a writer, my pride is still sometimes stung by harsh criticism.

Hey, even the most thick-skinned of veteran writers still wants his work to be liked and read, no matter how many bestsellers he has behind him. (I’d like to have at least one bestseller, but that’s a goal yet to be reached.)

Another label put on me in the past — this time by a publisher — is “the editor who makes authors cry”. That is not an appellation of which to be proud. By no means. My goal has been and always will be to help authors produce their best work. Sometimes, they can be so in love with their creations that they cannot see flaws or weaknesses, missed storytelling opportunities, or clunky sentences. When an editor tells them what needs revising, they don’t receive the news well.

There is an implied compliment in the fact that someone else is taking the time to not only read one’s work, but to help one improve it. However, we writers often react with affront, with offended pride and scathing words toward the “clueless”, “high-handed”, “overbearing” editor. We don’t see his/her true intent. All we know is that we didn’t receive the praise and the rubber-stamped approval we desired.

Before we slap labels on folks and burn bridges we might need to rebuild, might I suggest a bit of reflection? Some distance? Perhaps a walk, a rant to a friend, a scribbled diatribe in a journal? A good night’s sleep? Prayer? Something that allows us to grow calm, to be objective, and not to say or do something we’ll regret. (Related reading: “What’s Your Filter?“)

We may find — as I did while editing Dragon’s Rook — that snarky, scolding feedback that shoots wide of the mark can still contain something valuable. When I stepped back and looked at the advice with cold objectivity, I saw a couple pieces I could use. As a result, I tore apart one scene that had been troubling me. The reconstructed version is many times better than the original.

So, then, what should I do when I’m now the one giving the ugly, scathing criticism?

Write it all out, and then don’t say most of it.

Recently, a PR firm requested I review a new novel by a young author. After reading the back cover blurb and the dark, well-written prologue, I had high expectations for the book. Below is the review. For the author’s sake, it will not be posted elsewhere, and has been edited here to obscure the author’s identity.

~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~

Although marketed as contemporary literary fiction, this novel could also be described as speculative fiction, a mix of modern and futuristic, of post-apocalyptic dystopian and the quest for utopia-via-enlightenment, of a perverse coming-of-age/search-for-meaning story with a science fiction existentialist-absurdist tale.

Try saying that ten times, fast. 😉

[Story synopsis, character list, and website links have been omitted to preserve author anonymity. However, quotes from the novel text remain unaltered, but for the characters’ names.]

It is not often I write a review like this. I want to write only the positives, but the cons are weighty. To be blunt, this book needs an editor, for content as well as mechanics.

It runs the risk of being “a tale…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5). The writing is often preening and pretentious, but that could be the result of a conscious stylistic choice on the part of the author, matching the attitudes and egos of the characters.

Yet it sometimes feels like the writer is trying to make use of every high-sounding turn of phrase he can conjure or every word he can find in the dictionary. One is left wondering if, by the sheer volume and length of words, the author believes he has communicated—but, perhaps, I am not the audience for this work. I can wax lyrical with the most poetic of the poets, but prefer straightforwardness to roundaboutation.

Macbeth^Orson Welles

Orson Welles as Macbeth

As Macbeth might say, “Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly,” (Act 5, Scene 5).

Despite proofing errors (the repeated use of “causal” in place of “casual”, for instance) and some awkwardly-constructed sentences or phrases (what are “cathartic muscles”?), there remain many quotable lines:

“I take it you’re the self-proclaimed chosen one?” (Leroy) asked. “Prophets are rarely successful. Even when they are, society kills them.”

(Walter’s) thick lips gave way to a line of crooked teeth. “Hence, it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.” (p77)

Later in the same conversation:

“The day is not calm when you discover humanity to be ripe for the taking.” (p78)

And some lines read like refugees from a modern-day “Jabberwocky”—they have a sound and a rhythm, and therefore the reader might almost think he understands their meaning or the author’s intent. But repeated readings reveal, no, the words really do make no sense.

This paragraph on page 121 transforms from poetic imagery to lyrical nonsense:

The notes of a distant piano played a melodic Bach and a blue Chopin to the beat of Kerouac. The sounds were unremitting as they’d always been in her mind. Real, but at the same time not real. Resonating. Vibrating. For she was a lollipop made of cherry and petrol, more given to the depths of trench coats and dark alleys; lethal-red lipstick, rocking a tear that was not a tear, but moisture secreting the nostalgia of an instinct held away from mankind by the missing link. From the real show and state.

Thank you, Google Translate. Sense to make, you do not.

The novel’s subtitle—[redacted]—is a clue to how readers are expected to view this work. The publisher’s mission statement, as well as the author’s explanation for the story’s existence, seem overly earnest, betraying a certain immaturity and youthful desire to ‘make a difference’:

[mission statement redacted]

Below is a quote from the introduction:

In the novel you’re about to read, I do not seek to victimize technology, nor to condemn our evolution, but to instill the realization that we are the product of our own thoughts, our own ideas, our own dreamed of reveries. We are the discomfort and leisure of humanity, the bright flame and its grey ashes. By nature we are born free.

Can’t argue with that last line. No doubt the author and I would find agreement on several other points. But how does one “victimize technology”?

Confession: I skimmed the second half of the book. Perhaps the story improved as it progressed. However, despite seeing interesting passages, I was not compelled to continue. The green-visored, cigar-chomping curmudgeonly editor who lives in the back of my brain could tolerate no more, and he suspects that publisher, editor, author, and the originator of the “editorial review” on the back cover are one and the same.

Nonetheless, [name redacted] is talented and intelligent, and is definitely an author to look for in the future. Give him time.

And his website waaaaay outclasses mine.

 

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How to Write Your Best Story: a rambling review

How to Write Your Best Story: a rambling review

edited & reposted from Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I’ve been writing since I was nine or ten years old, and I’ve lost count of the writing conferences, seminars, and classes, and groups I’ve attended, but the greatest learning has come from the simple act of writing (and revising — a lot), and the best advice has come from sitting down and talking to other and better writers. Reading How to Write Your Best Story is rather like one of those conversations: down-to-earth, intelligent, understandable, and useful.

Shortly before publication, Philip Martin, a fellow writer and editor, asked me to read through the manuscript for How to Write Your Best Story: Advice for Writers on Spinning an Enchanting Tale (128 pages, $14.95, Crickhollow Books).

My first conversation with Philip Martin was several years ago at a writers conference. I attended his session (I forget the topic), then asked him to autograph my well-read copy of his recent book, The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon’s Lair to Hero’s Quest, a Brothers Hildebrandt painting of Smaug on the cover, which just makes a good book that much cooler. I’m not usually the groupie / fanboy type, and I certainly don’t go around asking other folks for their autographs, but this time, it just seemed like the thing to do.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming. 🙂

HowToWriteYourBestStory“Never judge a book by its cover” is old advice that isn’t always true. After all, most of us have seen plenty of cheesy science fiction covers with awkward robots or scantily-clad alien women, or trashy romance novels decorated in shirtless men with impossible hair or women in torn bodices. We look at those covers, and we pretty much know what we’re gonna get. The whimsical cover art (by the late Marvin Hill) for How to Write Your Best Story is the reader’s first clue that the contents are written by someone who knows and appreciates a good story, and probably read his share of them.

What I like best about this book of advice is that it’s less about rules and more about principles of good storytelling:

Good storytelling exists in a world outside of formal structural elements of literature. It has intangible aspects, like a beautiful melody or an appealing fragrance. It exists in imaginary worlds you know well, like the 100 Acre Woods, or Narnia, or Lake Woebegone, or in mostly real worlds, such as a humorous journey on the Appalachian Trail with Bill Bryson — or in any number of great books based as much on storytelling as anything else. (p9)

And

(F)or a good number of years, I’ve pondered the question: is there a way to teach good storytelling, in the fashion of Kipling, Steinbeck, C.S. Lewis, O. Henry, Tolkien, or other beloved writers classic and modern — successful authors who we’d all agree knew a good story from a hole in the ground?

What do readers look for in a good tale? What specific techniques do I find myself most often recommending to emerging writers to boost the quality of their stories? (p10)

That’s what Martin endeavors to do in the rest of the book, and he does it with a whimsy to match the cover art, by telling a story interwoven with instructive chapters. After the Introduction, for instance, is the beginning of “The Princess & the Apple”, followed by Part One: General Things about Good Stories, followed by the further tale of “The Princess & the Apple”, which is interspersed among these chapters: The Case for Intriguing Eccentricity, The Case for Delightful Details, and The Case for Satisfying Surprises.

Included are many quotes from the works of famous authors and poets, including this quote from Joyce Carol Oates:

“Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses — one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment.” (p25)

That’s a push-pull war in which I constantly engage: what to leave out, what to add, what must be spelled out, what can be implied, what’s trivial, what matters.

A few more examples of advice from the book:

throw out the thesaurus (pp26-30),
juxtapose or fuse two ideas to offer a unique intersection (pp50-51),
listen (pp55-56),
use more senses (pp68-70),
ask what your characters want most (p93),
don’t dodge the difficult ending (pp104-105),

and much more.

How to Write Your Best Story is chock-full of good, perennial advice, but it’s also fun to read. This book will remain in my permanent library, and that’s just about the best recommendation I can give.

 

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