Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ella Sings

Does the world really need one more vampire story?

Before I answer that question, let me break into a seemingly irrelevant anecdote that will, of course, turn out to be a useful analogy.

I was sitting at my computer the other day and I decided to search for some music. I ended up on You Tube, like one does, and I found some old concert footage of Bobby Darin singing “Mack the Knife.” I noticed that one of the comments posted under the video, stating that only Bobby Darin could really do the song justice – other performers just didn’t get the timing.

I thought that was a particularly inane thing to say. The song in question has been performed by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and, believe it or not, Jimmy Buffet. You honestly mean to say that none of these professional, established, highly accomplished and very talented musicians can get the timing on a song?

The point is, the other performers had their own ideas. They probably had the skills to do a Bobby Darin impersonation, but why would they do that? They chose not to be Bobby Darin (or, in at least some of the cases, Bobby Darin probably chose not to be them – I’m not sure of the chronology). I mean really, would you rather hear Ella Fitzgerald belt a song out of the park as Ella or hear her do a pale imitation of someone else?

Does the world need another vampire story? Or another romance novel?  Or another television show following the adventures of a starship crew?  Another urban paranormal detective?

It needs at least one more: Yours.

But only if it really is yours, and not a poor rendition of someone else’s work.  The world doesn’t need a Bobby Darin wannabe. Or, I guess, maybe a  Steven King wannabe.

Artists use the same tools.  Writers reiterate themes and genres and metaphors the way musicians cover songs.  No sin there. Sometimes it’s even good that the audience is aware of the conventions of the genre, familiar with the style.

But everyone has their own unique perspective, too.  Trying to be someone else is no way to succeed in art.  At best, it’s a useful learning exercise.  But I’m never going to buy an imitation when the original master is still publishing at the same price.  Who would?

Today’s inspirational message was brought to you by the letter M and the numbers one and three.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Unwritten Stuff

It is a truism that writers tend to develop more information about their characters and setting than actually appears in the story.  And, it is said, this process improves the story, even though the missing data is never visible to the audience. That’s the mystery part – the characters and settings become more rich, consistent, and real, even though we don’t see everything they are consistent with. (And yes, I know I just ended a sentence with a preposition. I do that. I also start sentences with conjunctions.)

For my part, I hate working out detailed backstory. I prefer a more generalized origin story that can be summed up in a few sentences. That’s because I like leeway. I know that, as an author, I am not required to stick to the notes that my reader will never see, but I like the feeling of flexibility. I guess, really, I like not having the decision made until I know what the story demands.

Once a decision is made, it feels concrete, even though nothing is set in stone until the story is finished and the final edits are done. And even then you have to be ready for a publisher or an agent to request changes.

If I decide my character has green skin, by way of a simple, ordinary, down-to-earth example, then I tend to think of my character as, well, green. The character is subject to Kermit the Frog jokes and has an excuse not to eat broccoli. Of course I can re-write the character blue, and I will if the story demands, but it is harder than you would think, because in my head, green is the color.

I also find that detailed facts are often less interesting to me than personality. So when I do need a backstory, I don’t generally work out details like Bob enlisted as soon as he turned 18.  Instead, I tend to think what would Bob say if someone asked about when he enlisted. “Soon as I could,” maybe, or “When I was young and idealistic,” or, “If I’d know they’d move me out of Nowheresville, I’d have lied about my age and joined up sooner.” I learn more about my characters that way.

Anyway, that’s what works for me. Some writers used detailed outlines. Some write organically, looking to see what happens next. I think there is some benefit to having a road map, but maybe it should be a new-fangled electronic one that moves the landmarks as new data is entered.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Peeves on a Leash

It startles me that, in this modern and enlightened age, I have read professionally published novels with Deus ex Machina endings. I mean, there are still editors, right?

I once heard an author at a convention say that one of the big things that gets people into trying to write professionally, for whatever medium, is when they look at something and say “I could do better than that!”

Generally, I suspect they find that writing well is harder than it looks. But at least they know which mistakes they are not going to make.

So what are your pet peeves when it comes to storytelling? What tropes drive you nuts? Me, I’m getting awfully tired of the idiot listening to loud music through headphones who fails to hear the carnage and screaming from right behind him. We’ve all seen that movie, right?

And I don’t like it when a character makes a promise and the reader knows instantly that the story will be set up to make him or her break the promise.

And the Deus ex, of course. Any contrivance so old it’s name dates back to classical antiquity should be probably be avoided.

But it’s all personal taste, isn’t it? There are some tropes that I’ve seen as often as the idiot in headphones and they still work for me every time. 

Crafting a story is  an art based on choices, on making decision after decision after decision. And consciously or not, the tricks you’ve seen before are in your head, part of your storytelling arsenal.

Use them wisely.