Friday, April 26, 2013

Moving to a new site

You may have noticed a lack of updates of late.

No worries-- I'm still posting. It just hasn't been here.

I've been having trouble with Blogger lately, which has kept me from posting regularly. To deal with that, I've moved to  You can find more information about the move here.

Thank you for bearing with me, and I hope to see you all at the new place!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Coil by coil

My own personal attempt at pottery. 
I’m by no means an expert when it comes to clay. But I’ve taken a few classes throughout my school career, and one project I was assigned every time was making a coil pot. Perhaps there’s a more efficient way to go about it, but my teachers always gave me the same instructions:

You start out with a shapeless blob of clay, and you form it into long snakelike coils. That’s the easy part.
At first you just make the shape, coil by coil. You score the edges that connect, add the muddy slip to cement the pieces together, and lay them on top of one another. When the pieces aren’t lined up right, you pick them up and move them around. To reinforce the seam you drag bits of clay from one piece to another and back again. It’s lumpy, it’s ugly, but it’s roughly the right shape.

Then you go back again. You reinforce those seams some more, blending and blending until they’re less of seams and more dips between raised bumps. You can still see where all the coils used to be, but it looks more even. Every time you blend the coils into one another, the shape becomes stronger. It’s more a single bumpy piece, rather than a whole bunch of bumpy pieces.

You keep going over it again and again, until you can just run your water-dipped fingertips over the edges and smooth away the bumps. It’s seamless. The shape is perfect.

Then you wait. And wait. There’s nothing you can really do at this point; unless you’re a master, interfering before it’s as dry as you need it to be can mess up everything you’ve worked for.

Once it dries sufficiently (but not too much!) you go back and add the really fine details. You pull out your needle tool and engrave tiny shapes into the surface. You carve out the designs that leave people talking about your pot for ages. And when all that’s done, you brush over it with stains and glazes, bringing color to something that was once uniformly gray or brown.

And then, dear God, you put it in the kiln, turn up the flames to the point where they could just about melt bone, and pray. You pray you didn’t leave a bubble in the clay, which might make the pot explode. You pray the glaze won’t run and get in the way of the etched designs. It’s out of your hands now. All you can do is trust in your own ability and let the kiln do its work.

If it’s not clear by this point, I think of writing very much like making a coil pot. You start out with a rough piece, a collection of scenes and characters, maybe even a whole beginning-middle-end. And then you edit. And edit. And edit. And each edit only makes it a little bit less bumpy, but after enough run-throughs you finally get to the place where you’re just wiping away your own fingerprints. And even then there’s room for improvement—the motifs, the details, the tiny quirks and broad strokes that stick with the reader long after they’ve put the book down. Then, when all is said and done, you hand your precious creation into the fires of publishing.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Guest Post: Just because isn’t enough.

Today's post is by my good friend and personal muse, Kya. For the last ten years or so, she's helped me develop my characters and the worlds they live in. 

Hello, I’m a good friend of this Blogger. I go by Kya online. I only have my love of stories and a Bachelors of Social Work with a minor in broadcasting to back up anything I say, but maybe I can help spark a few ideas for you. It helps with my friend Masako here.

In stories, characters are expected to have interests and quirks that aren’t necessarily relevant to the plot. Knitting is somewhat a common hobby even for younger people, but why show a significant character knitting? “Just because” is all good and well, but it’s not enough.

Why are they doing that? Is this going to come back later?

If there is ever a time you find yourself thinking, “Why not?” I’m sure your idea is cool/fun/adorable and could make a pretty great scene, but just think how much better the story could be if you followed up that “Why not?” with “How will is come back?”

The little things that seem like they are “just because” that end up being important at the end are what really ties a story together and excites the reader the second time around. Why make it random when you can make it relevant?

Most of us have read Harry Potter. How many of us were so excited when we realized that Hagrid was borrowing the motorcycle from Sirius Black? Or that the random locket that was mentioned when cleaning the Black house was a major plot point?

BBC's Sherlock is, of course, a detective show, so the details really count. As a viewer, the level of detail makes it exciting to watch again and again. Let me point out a montage of cases in Episode 1, Season 2. The episode has this near the beginning, most of the cases seem pointless and Sherlock is bored. He doesn't even bother taking most of them. Of course, those cases end up referencing the big reveal at the end. I was mislead and even our brilliant detective didn’t pick up on the pattern. The fact that everything in the beginning really was a hint at the end made it so much more exciting.

Okay, so you don’t have to give everything a reason, but the more you do the more you increase the joy of reading it again just to get those details. Why have it be random when you can make it epic?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Love without substance: How to fix it

I've talked about what makes an insubstantial relationship. The simple answer is to give characters chemistry-- but that's an abstract piece of advice. Chemistry comes from interaction on the page. Here's some quick advice on how to give romance some substance:

Have characters talk. 
I don't mean 'repeat a thousand iterations of "I love you"'. I mean actual conversations about stuff. Philosophy. Taste in music. Politics. Hobbies. Anything.

Have them share common ground. 
This really shouldn't be that hard, but the only thing Romeo and Juliet had in common was the fact that they both lived in Verona and neither of them could tell a lark from a nightingale. Even the couple from that one song shared a mutual approval for Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Let them reveal personal information to one another.
People don't like to seem self-centered, but there's something to be said about showing trust and vulnerability by opening up and letting another person see the real you. There's even a scientific study indicating that sharing personal information for thirty minutes and then gazing into each other's eyes for four minutes will make two people feel attracted to one another. And honestly? How on earth are they going to find common ground if they aren't willing to talk about themselves?

Let them have opinions, and then argue about those opinions. 
Having two characters agree on every detail of every thing isn't romantic, it's creepy. More than that, though, points of small-scale conflict give us insight into their characters. Maybe he likes Mozart, while she's more into Skrillex-- let them challenge each other, and defend their opinions and their beliefs. Let them be fully fleshed-out characters. The more dimensions, the better.

Don't just tell us how much they adore one another.
You've heard it a thousand times before, so just say it with me: "SHOW, DON'T TELL". I don't care how many times these characters claim to love and need each other. Until you give us evidence, I'm not gonna buy it.

  • Show us how they complete each other: When people ask me why I want two characters to be together, I usually answer "because they need each other." Everybody has flaws and shortcomings, and a lot of relationships are based on the people involved bringing out the best in one another or compensating for one another's weaknesses. Maybe she makes him brave. Maybe he makes her look at the world from a different angle.
  • Show us how they work together for common goals: This is that common ground thing again, but it also lets us see the dynamic between them. Who takes charge? How do they deal with discrepancies in ability? 

Let us know what attracts the characters to each other.
If your answer to this is "his chiseled abs" or "her beautiful auburn hair", go douse yourself with water right now. Beauty is fleeting-- one bad hair day/allergic reaction/fifty years of good old-fashioned aging, and it's gone. There's got to be something to take its place.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Love without substance: Romeo and Juliet

A lot of people talk about "love at first sight", and there's arguments aplenty about whether or not it actually exists. What I'm talking about is love without substance-- people declaring that they love each other, without any actual evidence of being in love. They can declare their feelings until the stars fall down, but when you get right down to it, they have no chemistry, nothing in common, not even basic human interactions. These people are barely qualified as acquaintances, and yet somehow they share the love to last the ages?

I was originally going to write this post using a hypothetical couple as an example-- only to realize that the trope codifier of all things teen romance was also the codifier for my single biggest romantic pet peeve.

Gentles, I present Romeo and Juliet, as told by The Bard himself. 

Romeo and Juliet are one of those interesting couples-- we see all but two of their direct interactions, from their first meeting to their tragic demise (this isn't difficult, since they know one another less than a week in total before things go all "Happy Dagger"). In all that time, they meet onstage exactly five times (one of which while Juliet is unconscious and Romeo is dead). In all that time, their conversations can be summed up as repetitions on the theme of "I love you" and "you're sexy". There's no substance there, no common ground (aside from mutual horniness) and no expressed connection, aside from the kind of hand-holding that results in hickies.

Not counting what's divulged by their friends (this includes one another's names), the only non-"I love you"/"you're sexy" information they share is:
Of course, you can make an argument that there's some between-the-lines stuff. Juliet shows off some qualities of practicality and prudence (mostly in telling Romeo to shut up and leave before he's skewered) and Romeo demonstrates classic stalker behavior determination and bravery. There are also two interactions we don't see directly, mostly because they're both sex scenes-- both of which happen after these two have gotten married. In the end, the only common ground they share is that they both live in Verona and neither of them can tell a lark from a nightengale.

Maybe if they'd taken a moment to sit and chat, Romeo might have discovered that Juliet is only  is only thirteen years old, and engaged to Paris. Maybe Juliet might have learned about Romeo's ex-girlfriend or his violent tendencies. 

I take this moment to point out that even Friar Lawrence is weirded out by how quickly Romeo got over his last girlfriend and moved on to Juliet. Also noteworthy: when Romeo meets with Juliet's nurse to discuss the upcoming wedding, they share a more meaningful conversation (defined here as revealing personal information and sharing common ground) than Romeo and Juliet have during the entire play. 

And somehow we're expected to believe that this is a love worth killing and dying for. 

Next week: how to add substance to a relationship. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A different kind of plot

Recently I saw this TEDtalk. Like most TEDtalks, it's awesome, so please take a moment to watch it:
Watching this got me thinking-- specifically the four examples they used to demonstrate an alternative to the traditional (for lack of a better term, I'm going to call it 'masculine') storyline.

As a refresher, Colin Stokes explained the social ramifications of two varieties of storylines. The more common, 'masculine' story, involves a hero who fights stuff, typically defeats a villain through violence, and then captures the heart of his love interest. Star Wars is the example he used, but if you pick a movie out of a hat there's a good chance it's going to have a similar plotline.

What I'm going to call the 'feminine' plotline involves the hero (in all the cases used here, the heroine) going on the same adventure, but while there's often violence, she conquers her challenges by earning the friendship and loyalty of the people she meets along the way.

[Spoiler alert: I'm giving away major plot points and endings for these movies. If you haven't seen them, hurry up and do it because these are great movies!]

In these stories specifically, though, it goes a step further. Rather than defeating the antagonist with violence, they are defeated through kindness. Not the schmaltzy 'hug the villain and he'll turn good' variety, either (though Paranorman pulled that off remarkably well):

  • In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy killed the Wicked Witch by accident-- she was only trying to put out the Scarecrow's fire, and got the Witch by mistake.
  • In Spirited Away, Chihiro learns through her adventures (and friends) that not everything is as it seems, and through her friendship with Haku has the chance to prepare herself for Yubaba's test. 
  • Like The Wizard of Oz, Tangled's Flynn wasn't really expecting Mother Gothel to go dusty when he cut her hair. He was only trying to protect Rapunzel by taking away the only thing that made her valuable to Gothel-- just like Rapunzel approached him out of the need to save him, rather than any malice against her captor. 
  • While Brave ended with the climactic battle against Mor'du, the Demon Bear wasn't the antagonist-- just the villain. The antagonistic force was the curse itself-- defeated through love between mother and daughter.
Collin Stokes argues that we need more stories of the 'feminine' variety, and I highly agree-- if for no other reason than they mix up the expected formula. 

What do you guys think? Is Stokes completely off his rocker here? Have you seen other works that use the 'feminine' formula well? Tell us in the comments!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Villains and Antagonists

Last week I talked about Brave, in which the villain of the story wasn't its antagonist. But what's the difference, you may ask?

A villain is a person. Not necessarily a human person-- it can be a machine, an alien, even a psycho demon bear, but it tends to be real, mostly physical, and has a personality. It's a character, and usually they've got something typically classified as 'evil' as one of their goals: money at the expense of innocent lives, cruelty towards another character, ruthless revenge, etc. Villains can sometimes be the heroes of their story (and let's face it, everybody's the hero of his/her own story), as was the case in Megamind, Macbeth, and Soon I Shall Be Invincible

Antagonist has a broader definition. While it can be (and often is) another character, it isn't necessarily. It can be a force of nature, a character's own madness, or a curse, or an unforgiving system. Even among character antagonists, the range is broader. While villains are typically the hero's enemy, the antagonist in a love story might be the hero's best friend who happens to be in love with the same girl. However, since the focal character of a story is automatically the protagonist, the antagonist (essentially anti-protagonist) can never fit that role (however, an aspect of the protagonist can). Essentially, an antagonist is any person or thing that gets in the way of the hero getting what they want. 
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