Sarah Connors v Wonder Woman: James Cameron speaks out.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, James Cameron – he of epics such as Avatar and of course, the Terminator, has taken aim at Diana Prince, and in doing so one could also say at Patty Jenkins. As the director of the recent Wonder Woman film, she could be considered the real woman behind the superhero mask. Not that Wonder Woman wears a mask. I always wonder at those that don’t, but that’s not my point. Or his.

You can read the full interview here, and for movie geeks everywhere might I recommend it, but in terms of Wonder Woman, let me sum it up for you with this quote:

“All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided. She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards. Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon. She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit. And to me, [the benefit of characters like Sarah] is so obvious. I mean, half the audience is female!”

The interviewer is clearly a fan, something I’m not sure I am, but I can hardly argue with his point that, ‘for all his machismo, Cameron almost invariably puts genuinely tough female characters at the heart of his movies’. From Riply in Aliens to Sarah and even skinny blue Neytiri he has created some of the most iconic action woman Hollywood has to offer.

Jenkins on the other hand, apparently can, hitting back with a twitter post that far exceeds the 140 character limit, might I add. I applaud her disregard for rules.

James Cameron’s inability to understand what Wonder Woman is, or stands for, to women all over the world, is unsurprising as, though he is a great filmmaker, he is not a woman.

Might I just say, for all whom it might interest, that I would not personally have gone with the genital defence, (especially if I’d let three men write my script). And before you all go thinking, mmm didn’t you used to pretend you weren’t political, Ms Skite?, that’s precisely why. Good characterisation to me should stand outside of politics. Good films should stand the test of authenticity which has nothing to do with the vagaries of current trends.

Cameron didn’t invent the flawed woman. Bad mothers, bad manners and even bad teeth aren’t absent, although you can argue they are rarely celebrated and just plain, rare. From Cruella de Ville to every role Bette Davis ever played, to Lady Macbeth the bad girls of fiction are as memorable as their male counterparts. By the time Terminator 2 came out in 1991, we’d already had bad-girl-but-we-love-em characters such as Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (and everything else she ever played), Shirley Maclaine in Steel Magnolias, Rizzo in Grease and with the eighties emphasis on athleticism characters like Riply, actresses such as Brigitte Nielson and Grace Jones and even Callahan in Police Academy could be said to have achieved a cult following.

The funny thing is, when you look at those iconic strong-women,  they look a lot like Gal Gadot. Most are former models with the long lithe and decidedly unmuscled physiques we might expect on the catwalk. Few look like they could pack the punch this woman could.

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I’ve heard a lot of people defend Gal Gadots lack of musculature – she’s a Goddess, her strength is supernatural, if you can suspend your disbelief over everything else why not this? But there’s no getting away from the fact that no matter how often female action heroes toss armies about like ragdolls, from the 1920’s to the 2010’s, the overwhelming majority still don’t look like they could bench press more than a tin of beans. Looks – being an object of male gratification as James Cameron would have it – still trump story authenticity, the only question is, does it really matter?

Hollywood is superficial. We know this. Big who cares? And a film so obviously catering to mass audiences that involve high numbers of teenage boys is probably not the place for it to prove us wrong. There will always be the Bette Davis’s and Glenn Closes and Kathy Bates, actresses who hold us spellbound despite their more unconventional looks. There is even the very obvious point that Cavil and Co are hardly any different, required to fit into a certain body type, building as many muscles as we girls conceal. Even actors such as Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield, the less obvious pin-ups of the superhero genre, were expected to develop a lean, toned look that would work with the extremely revealing spidersuit.

As such it becomes almost impossible to avoid the political connotations – are muscles a feminist statement? Is about overthrowing the patriarchy rather than embracing great character, and visual authenticity?

If that’s all it were, just bulging bi-ceps, just one more image, in a sea of images, rooted more in saying ‘fuck you establishment’ like a rebellious child ripping ribbons out her hair to spite her father, I’d probably have to side with Patty Jenkins. As is, my guts telling me that Cameron, for all he produces trite nonsense like Titanic, has a point.

Hollywood along with the rest of the mainstream media of today is presenting an image of female empowerment that not only self-consciously embraces itself in a manner I find undermining but that seems to avoid any thing resembling a real woman. And that’s troubling. Great fiction starts with something real, that grounds us, before it offers something that inspires us. When we start from inspiration and end there, it loses its resonance. There’s no aspiration, no tension, nowhere to go.

I understand where Jenkins is coming from when she says,

if women always have to be hard, tough and troubled to be strong and we aren’t free to be multi-dimensional or celebrate an icon of women everywhere because she is attractive and loving, then we haven’t come very far..

I just don’t think its genuinely addressing the issue.

First we celebrate all women who are attractive for almost no reason except they are attractive. Virtually every actress successful today owes something to her looks, or we wouldn’t have so many ex-models in leading roles. As for loving? Really? I’m not even sure this is worth addressing, but I’m gonna anyway and assume that despite her flagrant disregard for the 140 character limit her true reply was still hampered by being a tweet.

She is absolutely right in pointing out that sweetness (if that is what she meant) is a less than popular trait in female characters currently. If you aren’t sassing it up left right and centre, putting a man down with a dead eye then you’re just not. As in, if you’ve been written at all, you’re still never making it to the screen.

Presenting us with someone sweet and loveable, gullible even, would seem to be a refreshing change from the Cat(ty)women of today. Except of course, we’re still just sitting on the surface, arguing muscles and fashion.

Lets remove the ‘currently’ from this discussion, lets remove the traits in favour today and attitudes that prevailed yesterday, that like hairstyles are ever changing, and address the issue that undercuts and unites them all. She’s still perfect.

Or as I prefer to put it: Why can’t women ever be just a little bit crap?

Because you know, we are. Every single one of us. Just like every single man. We don’t always do the right thing. Sometimes we don’t even consider the right thing.

When a woman breaks its like the equivalent of a single tear tracking down a glistening cheek. When men break? It’s like snot on a dirty face. Not always of course. Cliches abound but the possibility is allowed to exist. The only people who are writing truly powerless women are women, and when they do, they’re cried down for it. Admittedly they are often writing dub-con or non-con erotica which, on the surface can be very hard for many of us to argue for.

We need to move beyond this obsession with appearances.

What we should be asking is what is it that surrender offers us an escape from?

Sarah Connor wasn’t a bad mother, she was an imperfect mother. Her choices hurt those she loved. Her desire to protect, wounded her son and forced him to stand against her. Diana Prince is another Thor, a fish out of water, but where he is at least made prideful and clearly makes at least two fatal errors in judgement, Diana is merely bad at fashion. As we would expect, female heroes never care about their appearance, although when I say bad, I wish I looked like her in an evening gown and medieval sword.

Women are continually painted as paragons, icons, they are the wife who the husband dances around trying to please, the object of affection who holds all the cards, the brilliant Mary Sue who leads the pack. They teach, scold, nurture and imbue men with the will to strive, still often glimpsed through rose coloured windows, the prize on the hill, never allowed to dirty her hems with the muck of tripping over herself.

To return to those muscles, what we have to ask is if they are one more sign of our perfection, that we are not beholden  – not in the wonderful world of fiction – to even the basic biology of reality.  We’re not being asked to believe in her, simply admire her. The Scarlet Witch can withstand an army with one weeks worth of hand-waving behind her, the Black Widow can hold her own against Gods with nothing but a catsuit to enhance her mortal assets and Wonder Woman can train her entire life to fight and the only battle she faces is her right to be righteous.

I agree with Jenkins decree that

women can and should be EVERYTHING just like male lead characters are

But I wonder if she realises how the film she has produced contradicts this.

is it not possible to be attractive with muscles?

is it not possible to be loving and weak?

Is it not possible to be powerful but misguided? Selfish but kind.

God forbid we see the beautiful strive to be beautiful, the powerful, strive to be powerful. That we see her hunger for something, for herself.  Instead we see her struggle to please – please the women who raised and trained her, please the man she loves, please the people who need her. She wants only to serve.

Why are we so afraid of broken women? Of women who must accept guilt, blame and responsibility? What are we attempting to put right by refusing to accept that they can be wrong – and still attractive and loving, loveable? That they can want, desire, learn, grow, be more filled with wonder than merely an object of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The rise of the superhero genre in the modern age: when they should be enjoying their retirement in Florida

A fellow writer just asked a very innocent question: What genre are Superhero’s?

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Poor fellow.

So started the inevitable war of lines. Where does science fiction begin and fantasy end? For those not in the know, despite the tendency to lump these two together for some of us – *who me? whistles innocently* – there are some very clear and very important distinctions. In attempting to answer as helpfully as possible ie avoid ranting at the poor fellow, something – a thought that had been blowing about the cobwebbed corners of my consciousness for some time, suddenly came into focus.

Why in this time, this era of virtual superhighways, when kids are being treated for minecraft addiction before puberty, and you’re more likely to get unfriended that wedgied, are superheroes so popular?

It made sense when they first captured our imaginations. The post war era was one of revolutionary change. We’d just survived a war that, like none before it, wasn’t won by men in trenches but men in labs. Rockets, cruise missiles, atomic bombs, radar, computers, no war has ever advanced technology at such a pace as World War II. In attempting to defend our way of life we changed it forever.

The impossible suddenly seemed possible in both wondrous and monstrous ways. The atomic bomb had brought the dangers of nuclear energy to the forefront of our less than reality checked media’s attention, while the thalidomide scandal in the early 60’s saw thousands of pregnant women take a new wonderdrug only to give birth to children with malformed limbs, organs – including eyes and hearts – and other severe, in many cases fatal, deformities. Science must have felt like a terrifying abyss of possibilities. And in that was born the Superhero.

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Across the range of superheroes we see the sciences and their promises personified; the technology of Batman, the nuclear fallout of the Hulk, the space program in Superman. They meshed these two very distinct ideas, found a way to make them work together, advancement and destruction, man and machine, to balance the terrifying power of something beyond the human. In some odd way it makes me think of the old pagan traditions of praying to weather Gods. As if the best way we know to deal with anything this powerful is to reshape it in our own image.

Back then I’d have happily let them march under the banner of science fiction. At the forefront even. Cartoonish, overblown, yes, but in some ways that was a genuine reflection of how it must have felt, of the attitudes of the time. The ideas explored, issues raised, felt real, grotesquely, impossibly, possible.

 

Now? Batman is a car advert. Spiderman would probably just end up at A&E and Superman is an endless nerd debate about supersuit dry cleaners. Science has kept marching on and with it our credibility has been stretched. No one believes we’re exploring the possible anymore. Genetic modifications are more likely to keep your tomatoes fresh than give you the ability to climb up walls. And no one cares.

They seem like tv’s in wooden boxes like a relic of a bygone era but in the last few years they’ve dominated the screen, large and small. Marvel’s extended universe is netting billions, with five shows currently running, over a dozen films already made and a dozen more in the pipeline. And don’t imagine DC isn’t fighting back, the Justice League will rise again in a theatre near you soon. Comic-cons around the world sell out in minutes, while sales of graphic novels – their original home – have risen year on year, netting over $870 million in 2014 compared to a mere $265 million in 2000.

It’s the biggest game in town.

And I for one, am very curious why.

One of the fundamental differences between sci-fi and fantasy – one that matters to me – is perspective. Sci-fi is always reaching forward, while fantasy predominately looks backwards. Despite superficial visual advancements much of the genre remains steeped in the past. Batman invents cool cars and abseiling equipment while in real life kids download dirty bomb schematics of the internet. Iron Man may be set against a background of arms dealing and terrorism, but his ultimate face off is still an unrealistically enhanced meglomaniac, one that armies and police forces are helpless against. One only he can defeat. The very idea of a lone hero feels left over from another age, one of Knights and chivalry, when one man armed with just a sword could fell the oncoming hordes. And perhaps that’s its appeal.

The humanity we foisted on the inhuman forces we were uncovering has morphed into a code. No longer just a face, but a set of values that cannot be transgressed, like the Knights oath, they promise to be bound by honour, justice, to put their powers into service for us. The science is no longer important, and with it goes any limitations, now its about power and control. We’ve returned to the weather gods. Despite their hi-tech weaponry and modern setting, they offer the comfort of the past and the promise that if we’re good, we’ll always be protected.

The superhero offers us a messiah, just like a religion. In the modern western world science was supposed to have bested that kind of thinking. While their popularity in the emerging modern east seems to run contrary to their strong allegiance to the notion of state over individuality. Perhaps its because the superhero of today is not a man, but an idea. Of sacrifice, of strength. Recent reincarnations of Superman have all but banished the Clark Kent aspect of the character. While the name remains, everything he embodied, the man behind the suit, the weakness, hopes, and fears have gone. In Man of Steel he was a Greek god in tight white tee-shirt and billowing locks. A rock video messiah, with a kick-ass mamma to match. Lois knows his powers as soon as she knows his face.

He – like all superheroes – is constantly asked to put friends and lovers to the side in order to serve the greater good. In the seventies Superman was defined by his love for Lois, turning back time and giving up his powers for her. He never stops trying – and failing – to win her love as Clark, as himself, a man not a birthright.

Today’s superheroes are blighted by equally unsuccessful love lives, but rarely is it down to being bad at flirting and a bit of acne. Rather they choose to reject love out of a sense of responsibility to protect. The most recent series of the Flash ended with our hero walking into a prison of Tantalus proportions in order to maintain the balance of life, just as he saves the girl. Their choice is their burden.

The Dark Knight reincarnation of Batman, which many might credit with spearheading the current resurgence of the genre, worked this particular angle to mythic proportions, with Batman hiding out as a reviled monster in the belief that this lie serves a better world. At the end, when he does get the girl, he does so after handing on the Superhero mantle. Only by ensuring the world is protected can he become a man again.

Identity has always been an integral part of the genre. Comics were not always the mainstream entertainment they are today. And it’s not a coincidence that the most common true identity of any superhero is the geek, the scientist, the underdog; woven in to their tapestry is every lonely teenage boy, from frustrated love to confusing physical changes to struggles with authority.

With their mainstream acceptance, it seems our heroes have gotten a cool new makeover. Deadpool and Iron Man wise crack like comedians on speed, and if they’re not witty then they’re stacked like – well like Thor. It more often feels like they are the authority – overworked, unappreciated and all encompassing.

Some might argue that they’ve simply evolved, grown up a little, gotten a little dirtier, as tends to happen as we get older. The Dark Knight stands as a landmark in tone, introducing grit, and a lot of grey filters to the world of Superheroes. At least in the cinematic universe. In the comic-verse anti-hero works such as Constantine and Jonah Hex, have been kicking around for a while. The problem is their flaws aren’t weaknesses – saying ‘I’m an unstoppable force against the darkness’ is a weakness is a little like saying in an interview that you work too hard. Growing up for most of us means we become more vulnerable, we accrue back injuries and mortgages, not body counts. But yet again that might be their appeal. Their audience nowadays seems just as likely to be worrying about the taxman stealing their retirement fund as bullies stealing their lunch money.

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We’re lulled into a false belief that we’re witnessing darkness, facing uncomfortable realities embodied in husky voices and unshaved jawlines, when what we’re really witnessing is the uncompromising scope of their power. Their darkness reassures us. It reinforces the code, the black and white morality in play. These are men who do not stop in their pursuit of justice, who do not tire of smiting the unworthy, who will not let death or love distract them. Iron Man will not let the Mandarin go unchecked because Pepper is in danger. They will always choose the righteous path, its just littered with a lot of bodies.

And perhaps most importantly in the anti-hero handbook, they choose who is righteous. In Winter Soldier we’re presented with the idea that the entire organisation of SHIELD is evil despite every life they’ve saved, every world ending plan they’ve thwarted because some folk in it had been plotting against them. Yet Cap has no problem defending said Winter Soldier, one of their evil plots, because ‘friend’.

In the current landscape I find that a little troubling. I’ve never had much time for simplistic notions of good and evil or of circumnavigating individual choice. Vigilantism isn’t about taking the law into your own hands, its about taking judgement into your own hands. Something some of us seem too eager to dole out.

The dark subtext to religion is that it doesn’t just offer comfort in the form of goodness will be rewarded, but that allegiance to great power will protect. If I play by their rules, by their definitions of right, I will be safe. The current resurgence of superheroes, the dark anti-superhero, seems to be reinforcing pack mentality, a might is right approach. They’re still defined by their ability to lift really heavy stuff and pile up a lot of henchmen. Even when dealing with ideas of evolution, evolution to a higher form of existence, power is defined by how dangerous you are, how many you can wipe out. They have to create increasingly ridiculous villains and outlandish plans in order to justify the superhero and the destruction his anachronistic powers leave in their wake. Like gods themselves, the battles seem not unlike some ancient clashing of the Greek Titans, certainly in terms of how little they pertain to real life threats. Ultron chips out a country sized meteor in order to give them lots of screaming innocents and crumbling buildings to justify their death tallies. While Whedon had to write a lot of monologue cliches in order to justify why anyone – let alone an alien AI created to protect the world – would ever want to go to such convoluted lengths to destroy it in a time with nuclear warheads, computer virus’s and weaponized diseases.

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It may not be that their appeal is quite as actively nefarious as that. But there is no doubt power has an almost irresistible pull and nothing embodies it more than the simple act of knocking a man down. Violence has long been fetishized in Hollywood – and probably in literature and art of all kinds – but its never been as prevalent as it is today. The convergence of superheroes, the embodiment of goodness and self sacrifice, with all these elements, violence, power, the way it offers a simple black and white map to justice, vindication, may go some ways to explaining why they are so popular. A simple, fun answer, free of consequences or doubts. It’s a very long way from its science origins.

All of which sounds a lot like it adds up to someone who just doesn’t like superheroes. And honestly that’s not true. I may be more a Close Encounters of the Third Kind girl, but I was a mad x-men freak as a kid and still secretly want to write Rogue and Gambit fan fiction. Modern incarnations aren’t appealing to me, I don’t like many of the themes driving them, the twisted values that keep cropping up, the stand-in of violence for maturity, but the core ideas, the curiosity that drove the comics that gave birth to them are still worth exploring, identity, power, possibility, consequence. One of the other things that I believe defines science fiction is that it ask questions, rather than clings to dogma and old beliefs because they are safe. Science, in fiction or in a lab, seeks to push beyond the accepted into the treacherous territory of being wrong, making mistakes and not knowing where we’re going to end up.

Superheroes can still lead us there. If we’re willing to take a step into the unknown.

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JOSS WHEDON TIPS FOR WRITERS

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SO I stumbled across this the other day and found it quite intriguing. I can admit to agreeing with all of it, although I never think that’s really the point of these sorts of posts, rather they illuminate – if the writer is honest enough – another’s process, their fears and their vision. Don’t listen is something I’m currently striving hard to achieve, selling out is on my to-do list 😀 but I probably don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about structure. Interesting that I let my characters lead me organically, while Mr Whedon..

I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts

We’d probably butt heads over that. I still believe forcing a shape on your work is a form of stunted growth.

And number Five? I’m not sure I really understand that one. What do you think?

http://www.aerogrammestudio.com/2013/03/13/joss-whedons-top-10-writing-tips/

Why Do Storytellers Ignore Story?

It seems a little like meeting a man who insists the dust is wet and the sea is dry. Some things are just too obvious surely?

I’m usually pretty good at ‘getting – not agreeing – but getting where people are coming from with opinions that are different from mine. We’re driven by pretty similar things when it comes right down to it – love sex and rocky road ice-cream.

I get the endless drowning of story in sex and violence, why Voyager winched poor Seven into that costume, why Buffy’s hair was always perfect, I can even wrap my head around the endless machinations of the hideous folk that people stuff like Gone Girl, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Like it, no, agree with it, hell no, admire it… do I have to answer that?

But when writers skip right past the story, the story built into the premise, the plot, the characters, the very title! – not address it poorly, but just ignore it entirely. Can they not see it? Genuinely or is there some deeper reason they don’t want to address it?

Take Voyager. It was as the name implies a ship on an epic voyage. A voyage home. It’s on a mission into the badlands in the alpha quadrant to track down a missing Maquis vessel, tracing the route of the rebel ship they find themselves mysteriously transported across the galaxy to the delta quadrant, 70,000 light years from home.

It’s a great premise.

Here’s more.

The rebel ship has a spy aboard – Tuvok – Captain Janeways confidant and security chief.

Captain Janeway destroys the mysterious array that transported both ships, acting under what she believes are Starfleet principles, the very principles that have left the Maquis as outcasts.

The Maquis vessel is sacrificed by Chakotay in order to protect both crews from an attacking native species, the Kazon

A ‘helpful’ trader manipulates them into saving his friend and creates the animosity that in part causes the Kazon to attack.

The two crews – because of Janeways actions – are now stuck together. Although Starfleet outnumber the Maquis considerably.

Besides Tuvok, there is another traitor, Paris, a jailbird, brought on board to help navigate the badlands, who sold them out for a reduced sentence.

The Maquis crew include a half Klingon who washed out of the academy, a Cardassian infiltrator and a beta-zoid sociopath.

I don’t think you could GET a premise more ripe with story. At the end of the opening episodes, you have both crews alone, in the debris of the battle…and there is Chakotey in full uniform beside Janeway as she announces how they’re all going to have to make their new crew members welcome ..

And all of a sudden it’s homeward bound only with pointy ears instead of wagging tails..

 

Oh story raises its head now and again but it’s tepid, token at best, raised and solved in a neat half hour, with no real sense of underlying tension or unrest. And the only time any true voice of dissent appears she is quickly relegated to a cartoon villain role, revealed to be a traitor, and departs – the same episode – to make an alliance with their new enemies the Kazon.

Can you set up something so ripe and not see its potential? I suppose its possible. Perhaps there were conflicts. Whedon has spoken somewhat openly about the demands of working within an established franchise when he stepped down from hemming the Avengers. Star Trek is huge and at the time Voyager was launched it was at its height, with Deep Space Nine still running and the popular TNG having not long wrapped. It may have been intended to fill that void, and veering from the well worn formula may have had opposition. It’s also worth remembering that DS9 is often considered the least Star Trek of the franchise, – with little trekking involved, a very alien-heavy main cast, and a willingness to undermine and question the untouchable Federation. The Maquis are never painted as villains, even when one of the crew is revealed to be a member, betraying them all, he is unrepentant to the end and shows both heroism and treachery.

Voyager rather than further exploiting this complex situation seems almost instead to function like party sponsored arbitrator, absolving the rebels of anything but misguided good intentions while not so subtly upholding Starfleet values and practices at every turn, moulding them all in the accepted Federation way..

Propaganda in writing is probably unavoidable but on behalf of a fictional institution? Yikes…

I’ve encountered a lot of threads on a lot of boards (its a weird way to be jaded, but I like the tobacca-chewing image) with writers saying, I have my characters – I’m great at characters! – or I have my setting – I’m great at world building! – but I can’t think of plot. And each and every time I think, but if you have characters, you have plot. If you have a world you have plot. You might suffer from too many to chose from, but you surely shouldn’t be faced with none?

Unless of course by character they mean 5’5, 124lbs, good student, average athlete, likes hotdogs, punk music and hates long walks on the beach. if so, please revise your previous assessment. You suck at characters. It’s not an e-harmony profile..

I have no difficulty wrapping my head around the issues with works such as Interstellar. Not to say its forgivable but they didn’t ignore the story sitting in front of their eyes, they just ignored the lack of story sitting in front of their eyes.

Ignoring causality, believability, and accountability in favour of visuals and cheap tricks that tickle the directors fancy – or wallet – is pretty standard. Hollywood is an odd mix of both wanton self indulgence and ruthless risk avoidance in pursuit of profit. Much of this results, as in the case of Voyager with a rigid adherence to formula over and above anything approaching character. The strings are so clearly marked you can see the reason written like chalk directions on a clapper board in front of every action, and its never, ‘because that’s how the character would naturally react’.

In Age of Ultron we have Tony Stark the troublemaking genius who pushes at every barrier just to test it, deciding to use mind blowing alien tech not because its mind blowing alien tech but to keep his superhero friends and family safe. Or Black widow – I mean the name says it all – but she eschews her name, training and flirt with everyone commit to no-one personality to fall headlong in love with a man who despite being a giant uncontrollable monster, is, we can only assume, a scintillating conversationalist..

And finally we have a villain, built from a desire to protect the world, who just wants to drop something really big on it.

Given the established party line is formula bad.. thank you Hulk, while character and conflict are both revered as good, you sort of wonder if this is an honest attempt gone wrong. Not just Age of Ultron, but much of Hollywood’s output. That they can’t in fact see how closely they are adhering to cliché, but rather imagine that they are plumbing the emotional depths of their characters.

Sometimes I think we get character and personality mixed up. We use the former in writing a lot, we talk about flaws and traits, depth and believability, yet we rarely end up with a personality, that unique messy blend that defines a person.

when writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters – Earnest Hemingway

Character is the best most natural and compelling form of conflict there is. Their power to drive and shape plot, provide obstacles and generate tension is however, rendered utterly obsolete when they’re all the same character; when every writer is looking not to life, to the people around them, even within to the truth of their own feelings and reactions, but to tropes, to established patterns of behaviour within fiction, we’ve left story far behind.

Pixar storytelling rule #15 If you were your character in this situation how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations

Returning to Interstellar, we have a little girl who adores her father and wants to grow up to be a scientist just like him. When he has to go off to save the world (for her) she gets mad at him. Fair enough, it’s a standard trope but believable enough. I wouldn’t have behaved this way, nor can I imagine my brother or sister reacting similarly, but we grew up in a happy two parent home, with no threats of imminent world ending so who knows. Where the trouble starts to come is that in the few days that her father is traversing space and looking through his messages, a great deal more time has passed on earth. And his daughter is still mad. Twenty years later. It makes for a poignant moment for poor old dad, if you’re willing to go along with it. I’m not sure how any fully grown woman, fully cognizant of the tragedy facing mankind and how few remain who are skilled enough to offer any help could possibly still be mad, especially when all she has to do is chat into a laptop camera, as pain free apologies go they don’t come much easier.

Beyond character – as some might put it – you have world. I don’t personally think the two are distinct. World – at least any we know – is built by people, what we do, what we need, what we fear and how we deal with it all.

In the case of Interstellar you have again a lack, rather than avoidance. The world is dying, but no one knows why. Most of the action is not spend dealing with either figuring this out or attempting to deal with the reality of it, but navigating space where we are treated to a series of inconsequential, implausible and somewhat tenuously linked issues, none of which relate to the characters. The final solution does actually attempt to link back to the central (apparently) relationship of father and daughter, suggesting their deep abiding love could connect them across space and time. The same abiding love that left a grown woman perfectly content to see her father strive and die alone in space knowing his daughter is pissed off with him… mmmm I hope no one involved ever decides to love me..

But Voyager… ah Voyager. There is a reason fan-fiction is so ripe in the Star Trek community. It’s a rich ready made soil. A plethora of alien species, existing conflicts, and the unlimited possibilities of a new system without the tying strings and danger-free familiarity of the Federation controlled home territories.

Or consider Age of Ultron. Many films draw on the world we have here and now, positing an alien – literally or otherwise – element and then simply asking what if? I often find this sort of premise somewhat akin to superhero origin stories. Our instinct is the new is always preferable from a story pov, but in reality there is little new left. They’re all dealing with essentially the same thing, treading the same ground of shock and denial, horror and wonder, something that makes the second instalment or third much more appealing. We can go deeper. Or we can rehash. Hulk is targeted.. again. Tony and Steve butt heads .. again and none of it affects the seamless fighting dynamic of this disparate group who’ve barely seen each other – as all the intermediate franchise films demonstrate. New territory is provided by going against the established canon. The chemistry between Hawkeye and Black Widow fizzles to nothing as he suddenly has a wife and three kids (who were totally not worried when he was under the evil power of Loki), the fall of the triskelion – eh… the what now? and Fury’s surrender of power become irrelevant like all the other intervening events. While the world at large continues with the same old headline – Avengers: friend or foe?

Superhero films as a genre have always struck me as particularly guilty of the ‘ignore story’ protocol. Is this a matter of fearing to disrupt an existing audience? Comics themselves have grown in darkness and scope, holding firm as the lonely teenage geeks best friend but no longer afraid to piss off mom and dad by addressing everything from masturbation to sexual identity. In fact identity has always been at its core, it just got a little dirtier.

I get wanting to remain loyal to your fans, the aspirational quality that has always defined them whether it’s wisecracking Deadpool or earnest icon Superman. But to borrow that old adage about courage.. is aspiration defined by lack of struggle or the overcoming of struggles? It can’t be a coincidence that the vast majority of superheroes have such pathetic roots – bullied, belittled, orphaned, traumatised – but to render overcoming as simply as buying some spandex and coincidental as shit-other-folks-did-made-me-cool? Somewhat redefines ‘overcoming’…

Some recent films have seemed to attempt to address this. Chronicle is about powers gone wrong; Zach Snyder commits the ultimate sin when his superman kills; Spiderman lets a criminal walk free. Yet none of it speaks to the individual’s struggle. It’s portrayed as an attraction to the dark side(usually leggy and smelling of whisky), a contrived set up, a superficial attitude that never dints their self sacrificing heroics.

Nowhere else is this more agonisingly evident than in Superman and most specifically in his recent incarnations. The Clark Kent persona has been discarded, reduced to the equivalent of a fake moustache rather than the real man behind the blue suit. By removing all the inherent weaknesses of Clark Kent – the difficulty of growing up different, wondering where you really belong, having to conceal physical abnormalities, the desire to be loved and accepted for who you truly are, feeling inadequate in face of the expectations placed on you – you reduce Superman to less than even a ‘character’, to a symbol.

Lastly one of my pet hates is the curious paradox of the hero who must bear the ‘responsibility’ of his powers, yet in doing so renders all others free. The Flash must fight for Central City because no one else will.. well honestly if folk won’t stand up and help themselves. If all the brilliant bright minds, deep pockets, political powerhouses can’t ante up and do something then I’d honestly be saying screw you. The demands – the constant cries of save us! – has he abandoned us? – are embraced as staples of the genre, as evidence of his unique chosen-one stature rather than examined on a larger scale. No one addresses the very real evidence that the only people who put all their needs on someone else are usually abusers.

Now there is a story – does society abuse superheroes? I’m sure someone will be along to ignore it any day now..

Is our Current Climate stifling literature? (And does it matter?)

Those parentheses are there for a reason. On the other hand there is absolutely no reason for me not to call them brackets.. momentary sneeze of pretension. Excuse me..

I’m not a political person. At least not judging by my Facebook feed. And I’ve tried very hard to avoid politics on here. Time and again subjects have raised their heads – diversity is a hot button in most writing forums – and it’s not like I don’t think about them. A lot. But every time I thought about writing an article something always held me back. Something is still holding me back. I guess I’m hoping I’ll know whether or not I’ll be posting this by the time I finish writing it.

Regardless of my own attitude, there is no doubt we are living in a political age. The internet seems to exist solely to provide a platform for the aggrieved and righteous, the offensive and the offended. I’m treated to an almost endless list of stuff I should be pissed off about every time I log into any of my social media accounts. Which may explain why I’ve forgotten most of my passwords.

  • I was read sexist propaganda as a child (because all girls were only ever read Cinderella)
  • My clothes are chains (probably why all the feminists are stripping off in magazines)
  • The only reason I’m not published is because I don’t have a penis. (Drawing one on a post-it doesn’t count. Apparently)

I have to admit even as I write this I find myself very loath to step beyond the gender related statements and touch upon topics such as the colour of my skin, my sexuality, my religion. I’m not sure how they all intersect as regards this strange notion of privilege. I feel often when I happen upon these discussions that the most relevant part of my identity is simply that I’m not American.

Samuel L Jackson recently came under fire for wondering what an American would have made of a role given to a British actor. As Brits who have sat through too many Dick Van Dykes 😀 we’re probably not that hugely sympathetic, but his comments arose from his observation that the history of race relations in America and Britain are distinctly different, and that, that difference, matters.

It raises the interesting idea that we aren’t merely trying to retrofit a one size fits all solution, but a one-size fits all problem. As culture becomes increasingly globalised, as eyes turn from across the world to fix inward at the same few points, is it shrinking? Are our points of references being reduced to the most common denominators, accessible by all, shaped by a few?

There’s been a flavour of this for a while, much of our entertainment transcends boundaries. Through travelling I’ve encountered a pervasive Western mentality that defines so many of my generation across Europe, a mentality that wasn’t shaped by our parentage but our shared culture mined through art and entertainment.

And whenever I had the privilege to witness culture smacking against culture, it always fascinated rather than aggrieved. I’ve never believed that conflict requires resolution, that opposing forces can not co-exist and be equally valuable.

That might sound a little naive, but here’s the reality; they do co-exist. It’s that last part that trips folk up. It is in pursuit of resolution, our need for some sense of certainty that conflict becomes problematic. Something some believe drives story and our love of it.

It’s very easy to get locked in your own perspective to the extent that you can’t see the picture clearly. And two recent shocks in international politics have shown that what seems the majority in the insular world of the internet isn’t necessarily reflecting the majority out there in the real world.

It doesn’t however mean that we aren’t all exposed to it; that it isn’t driving our decision making and our expectations.

If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you’re misinformed ~ Mark Twain

What begins in an internet chatroom, on an obscure individuals personal page can trickle, insidiously cross mediums, borders, demographics. It becomes fact through repetition, when questioned is defended and reinforced by this defence, if attacked, spread wider.

The internet may be the new cultural normal, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t guided by old rules. When dealing with what’s popular we seem always to return to the notion of the lowest common denominator. Make it simple, make it clear, make it easy.

But some things aren’t simple. Ever heard of a wicked problem? It’s something that is near to, if not totally, impossible to solve due to interlocked and ever-shifting components, which often means that when you solve one part another then becomes unglued.

A problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behaviour is likely to be a wicked problem. – Wiki

Two parts of the full definition, I’ve always found most interesting, is the acknowledgement that each problem, and each resulting facet of any solution, is unique and that, in consequence, we can’t learn through trial and error. Every time we implement an idea, a possible solution, the game doesn’t reset if it fails, or if it succeeds, it evolves.

It feels as thought every problem we have and every ingredient we add to the mix is being sifted through the filter of the Internet – of, for, by the lowest common denominator – and the resulting cookie disseminated far and wide, not just geographically but temporally, because unlike conversations or newspapers, nothing ever dies on the net, no matter how much it stinks. Of course books, you might cry, books last, they don’t become fish and chip papers, but books are big and long and long and big…

Perhaps one of the most pervasive examples of a book being reduced to a single annoying neat-as-a-tweet point is the manner in which George Orwell has evolved into an adjective. How many of the people who talk of living in an Orwellian world, do you reckon have read the book?… lets just repeat that for any who missed it.. PEOPLE IN INDETERMINABLE NUMBERS POST WHENEVER THEY WISH ON PUBLIC SITES ACCESSIBLE AROUND THE WORLD.. Now the rallying cry is that I am being too literal, its about influence. Having never been too literal – and usually barely literal – I’ll reply that I’m not offering a rebuttal, I’m asking for greater depth. The illusion of free will might just be as good as free will, in terms of happiness, productivity and opportunity – thousands of years of philosophy haven’t come to a conclusion on that yet, but a couple of guys with 280 characters between them think they can.

Much of this was inspired by quite a few recent rehashes. I’m not just talking Hollywood’s sacrilegious attack on classics such as Ghostbusters but in fiction we are seeing reworks of fairytales – the Lunar Chronicles – norse mythology, Chinese Legend, Greek gods – Percy Jackson – even Shakespeare. And it all has a very familiar taint.

There’s an oft cited notion that there are only a few stories in literature and everything, however diverse it might seem, is derivative of those. Right now, it doesn’t seem diverse at all. There’s only one story. It involves a plucky, special sort of hero(ine), the fate of the world, some bad (ass) dialogue and tortured romance. Take the recent Hollywoodisation of Alice in Wonderland. Is Alice wandering around listening to riddles and getting cross? No, she’s strapping on armour and finding her inner She-ra. Is the mad hatter jumping about on tables, and confusing the hell out of her? No, he’s now her bestest friend in the world that she is willing to die and risk sexist old men for, as that’s how it works when you bump into a weirdo having tea once.

But that’s teenage fiction, adults surely require something a little more sophisticated? They’ve read so many books the same old story on rinse and repeat won’t wash. Station Eleven, an Arthur C Clarke award winner, might seem like this on the surface. On the surface its hard to see any story at all, but once you remove the weird vignettes about a washed up film star you have a villain who is evil just cause he read the bible once too often, whose only visible sin is to marry off young girls, and an mc who happens to be a young woman with killer knife skills..

She stood and the handles of the knives in her belt glinted in the half light. This wire of a woman, polite but lethal, who walked armed with knives through all the days of her life. He’d heard stories from other Symphony members about her knife throwing ability. She was supposedly able to hit the centre of targets blindfolded – Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

And when we do see her strike it is almost superhuman. She’s tough and self contained, but will kill for her friends. She sleeps around and breaks her lovers heart, but while regretful for his pain, shows little guilt. Just like a man; just not like a real one.

A recent Nebula, Hugo and Arthur C Clarke award winner, Ancillary Justice, puts gender issues front and centre by using a machine intelligence as its main pov, which addresses all lifeforms as female. An experiment in how we perceive gender or simply a tiresome gimmick that prevented the reader from engaging fully with the text? Most of the negative reviewers felt the latter.

Compare it with The Turbulent term of Tyke Tiler, a children’s book from the 1980’s about an incorrigible troublemaker named Tyke. It cleverly avoided ever naming its protagonist’s gender – cleverly because the reader read blithely unaware until the last scene when finally it was revealed her real name was Theodora. Nowadays I’ve been earnestly informed that such deception would anger a reader, much better your agenda be clear from page one and unmistakable in its intent.

The issue here I should stress isn’t that woman are presented as strong. Its the fact that I feel the need to say I have no issue with strong women, to preface anything I might say regarding this or any other political hot button with some sort of defence. It’s the way the fear, the demands and the blanket simplicity of prevailing opinion is squeezing and shaping everything. The way it strips away nuance and closes down discussion in favour of a nuke ’em if they disagree approach.

And it seems utterly unable to recognise its own inbuilt prejudices that still shine through.

One of the recent big successes, one which has spawned a thousand imitators, is The Hunger Games. Katniss has been lauded as a feminist role model for teenage girls everywhere. I’m guessing because she has a bow and arrow. No one seems to acknowledge that she is in fact the very model of the Mother. A vessel, a nurturer, she seems defined by sacrifice, fuelled by the desires and needs of others, a puppet for the rebellion, striking only when others demand she does. Collins has claimed the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur as her inspiration. Yet Theseus takes action not reactively but proactively, out of a desire to change the status quo. Katniss never harbours such hope, desiring only to protect her sister. Or Rue. Or Peeta. Returning us yet again to the idea that women themselves, their ‘selfish’ desires aren’t important only their biological role. The very thing that Atwood famously took aim at a few decades before, in The Handmaids Tale.

Twilight author Meyer was attacked for writing an end battle that was revealed only to be a vision of what might be, allowing all characters to walk away, alive and wiser for it. Given the fans and the legacy – an entire new genre of paranormal romance – it seems the fighting was at best an attempt to retrofit a series to fit an audience that didn’t actually exist, a demand made by vapours of ‘shoulds’ rising from the internet and the current zeitgeist.

Of course there is life beyond the tentacled heart of Western storytelling; the magical realism of South America, the fantastical physicality of Hong Kong cinema or the alternative – totally mainstream alternative – manga. Such is the popularity of the form the New York Times has had a bestselling Manga list since 2009, and while Patterson – dear lord man! – managed to wiggle his way on there most are actually not born and raised near the Mason Dixon line. ie they are Japanese.

However when you start to take a closer look at some of those best sellers, like One Piece or Sailor Moon, there are some very familiar faces. Heroes with unique gifts that set them apart, a crew of diverse archetypes including the loyal confidant and fiesty love interest, and of course the fate of the world. Daily.

A recent live action attempt to bring the beloved Ghost in the Shell franchise to a wider audience was bogged down in controversy over white-washing the main characters. Principally by casting Scarlett Johannssen as the lead. Few critics had much negative to say about her performance however, and many felt the true issue was the Hollywoodisation of the storyline and its handling of the deeper themes which characterise the original.

Somebody misjudged how poorly American superhero movie tropes would map onto Ghost in the Shell….the final scene tried to do that ‘satisfying our need for closure’ thing American directors think is kind, but is actually condescending. ~  Kotaku, Cecilia D’Anastasio

I may have rambled on more than usual. I don’t have answers, just questions, that always seems to take up more space. Or it should. Which is rather the point. Modern fiction seems intent on giving us the answers, almost in a manner that is beginning to feel like propaganda. Nothing feels new, in base idea or depth of exploration. We’re offered the same answer over and over, we’re interpreting every issue as if it were identical, as if we were identical, because we’re not writing ideas, but stripes, identifying our tribe. The good, the enlightened, the righteous – and if you’re not on board with lesbian alien-lizard sex then dude move to the next section of the library while the rest of us pretend that we didn’t just get put into a coma by the lamest lesbian lizard ever written, because you know, we’re liberal…

This particular ‘humane tour de force’ only made it onto the Arthur C Clarke Shortlist. I’m going to start using that as a must-not read list. It’s a lot like Sesame Street in space. No disrespect to Sesame Street, which is probably a lot more fun, but I feel like I’m a little past caring that Bert and Ernie share a bed. So what am I looking for? Not preaching not the answer to sex, religion and everything else being throw yourself into a burning pit of fire (as recommended by all 21st century authors as they sip their mocha-choca-chinos on their ergonomic lazy boys..) Maybe I miss when the answer was 42. It made more sense. Mostly I miss reading those books that make you feel like the world was just cracked open a little wider.

 

The Only Writing Myth You Need to Worry About

It’s not particular to writing; it’s particular to life. And it comes in many forms, the first, most obvious, that some of us are simply born good. Good at writing, good at maths, good at music, talent not so much a seed as a forest, in full flower, with all the sunlight, water, everything it might need, unearned, untended, just there.

Einstein was doing Pythagoras while the rest of us were still mesmerised by the clickety-clack of the beads on the abacus.

In some cases it becomes modified to passion, to obsession that cannot be sated. King states, ‘ You can’t choose it any more than you can choose to be right or left handed’, and psychologist Ellen Winner defines the gifted as having ‘a rage to master’, being ‘intrinsically motivated to make sense of the domain in which they are precocious’. Neither believes that you can ‘make’ talent.

How about define it?

Winner gives it a fair try. She divides it into three categories:

One, an early mastery. Back to Einstein in the crib. But if a child is not exposed to badminton, or read bedtime stories 0r given the opportunity to play chess until out of nappies?

Two, creativity. Which seems somewhat circular. Can you measure creative talent by measuring creative talent? She specifies they have their own approach, ideas that set them apart, but this still throws up the question of ‘how can we determine this?’ Certainly every writer I have known has their own slightly peculiar sense of the so called rules.

The third, as detailed above, the obsession. Do we define obsession by output? By pursuit against odds?

If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, they would not think it so wonderful – Michaelangelo (supposedly)

Mozart crippled himself. Van Gogh gave an ear for his two thousand some scribbles.

But how then do we reconcile the work of JD Salinger, whose great first novel was to be his last? Or Harper Lee, famous for one novel only but whose power and influence is still reverberating through time? Patterson writes daily, and publishes hourly.. Amanda Hocking apparently wrote seventeen novels in her spare time.

But even Mozart, Beethoven and countless other greats, no matter how prolific, are known by the vast majority for only a few works. Many today couldn’t even name a Beethoven composition, although they’d likely recognise one or two.

Many believe output is still fundamentally about quality, the rest the steps towards mastering it.

How do we measure quality?

Our attempts often lead to another oft quoted form of the myth: Cream always rises to the top.

In 1984 Leonard Cohen penned a little ditty about the vulnerability of love, a little ditty the record company wasn’t too charmed by.

Couple of decades, a big green ogre and tv talent contest later and over 300 artists have covered it and it’s been so frequently used across most media even its creator thinks its time to give it a rest.

I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it and the reviewer said – “Can we please have a moratorium on ‘Hallelujah’ in movies and television shows?” And I kind of feel the same way…I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it

Is that example of cream rising to the top? Or how easy it is for it to be overlooked, unrecognised for what it is? For the sheer power of familiarity? Doris Lessing certainly thought so, claiming after her publisher rejected her anonymously penned novel, that ‘nothing succeeds like success’.

When Stephen King was given a lifetime achievement for contributions to literature it moved Harold Bloom to say

He is a man who writes what used to be called Penny Dreadfuls. That they could believe that there is any sign of literary value there.. or inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy.

Do you know who Harold Bloom is?

No, me neither, though he sounds in every way like a character from a Truman Capote novel.

Barbara Baig, who apparently spent an entire book disproving this myth called talent, believes it to be,

..the assumptions we make about other people’s ability that stop us from developing our own…

Why must you then concern yourself with it? It might seem a little like thinking about elephants when someone tells you not to think about elephants. But it will come at you in many forms, a true writer must write, luck is for the lazy; they’ll contradict each other, if its hard work maybe it’s not meant to be; it often involves the words, good, writer and must. It can seem to be about talent but just as often about luck, hard work or rules, of grammar, of convention, of story. It’s been present in this blog, I can’t deny it. At its heart it’s our innate desire to find our place on the hierarchy, to know before we poke our heads above the parapet if we’re going to get shot down, and where that shot might come from.

You can believe in innate talent, or not, but if you do, and you work in insurance, are you finding the days a little too grey and long? Does old age feel too far away? Maybe it isn’t about talent, or meeting someone else’s criteria of creamy goodness, maybe its just about happiness.

 

 

Story Genius: Can A Book Tell You How to Write?

Lord that’s a dull title. I’m getting a little serious here.

I’ve been reading my first ever ‘craft book’, Story Genius by Lisa Cron. It was leant to me by an aficionado of her method and neatly coinciding as it did with my decision to write a piece on pantsing vs plotting, the different approaches writers take, it felt fortuitous… or at least indicative of many minds – the great and slightly bonkers  – thinking alike.

Structure, plotting, outlining, formula.. lots of different words all amounting to the same thing. A concern with shaping your story before you actually write, or even conceive your basic idea. The difference in words is to my mind nothing to do with their meaning, or their result, and everything to do with how writers wish their work to be perceived. Structure has integrity while formula is derided as the approach of hacks. And there could be some merit to that – structure does matter – but in every discussion I see on it, it’s reduced to a formula, in all but name.

The questions being asked aren’t, is this working structurally? Why is this bit falling flat? Why does interest flag by this point? (And even these I write with caveats) But rather, how do I structure my novel? Who has a good blueprint I can apply? By what page must I perform this plot point in order to comply with this model? As if structure were something to be welded on to an existing story or a pre-existing scaffold you must then wrap your story around. In short that it is something distinctly separate.

When I first started reading Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, I was really, I have to admit, incredibly curious. I’ve never read a book like this and while I have read snippets of others, I really wanted to see honestly, fairly, whether there was any merit to such a book. Any real craft lessons that could be applied and help a writer grow. I’m about three quarters of the way through and flagging. Initially I wasn’t completely dismissive, although every time I’d think she’s making some sense, she’d say something that would make me pull back and look around, as if to the shocked spectators, thinking ‘dude? Really?’

The foundation of her premise is that readers read with their emotions. Which I agree with. How you engage those emotions however is tricky and will vary reader to reader. There doesn’t seem to be any attempt to acknowledge that on her part or that you’ll never appeal to everyone. She cites big selling examples, including Fifty Shades of Grey, The Little Engine That Could and Die Hard, showing a distinct lack of (taste) and appreciation of how the medium influences your approach, using them as indicators that there is one universal truth – the only truth we need concern ourselves with  – to how story works. Since at least one of those failed to work for me, that’s straight away problematic. Further, despite her claim, she doesn’t demonstrate how any of these fit into her blueprint, even loosely. Instead she uses them mostly to push her claim that all the other concerns we have over what makes a story great are irrelevant.

It’s true that Fifty Shades is horribly written – by beautiful writing standards, that is… And yet, the year Random House acquired the trilogy it catapulted them into the black. In fact, they gave every employee in the United States.. a five thousand dollar holiday bonus. Clearly something is going on here, something that has absolutely nothing to do with the “quality” of the writing. That something is story. – Lisa Cron

Much as I would like to, I can’t dismiss this out of hand. I do think it’s overly simplistic, no evaluation of Fifty Shades can be credible if it refuses to take into account that it was a/ fanfiction that piggy backed on the fame of another best seller and b/porn. Without knowing the exact figures I do know the entire genre of romance/erotica exploded (in a non-sticky sort of way..) around the time of its publication.

Great writing fails time and time again to prove its selling mettle to the public – The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, The Stud – and sadly far too many self published success stories seem to uphold this. As Fifty Shades does. Rejected by publishers, snaffled up by readers, books rushed out in a month or two, building sales and audiences, seeming to deliver exactly what a large percentage of the book buying public want at a fraction of the cost and some would say, quality.

The major issue I would have with all the cited examples (barring Die Hard, obviously) isn’t their lack of beautiful prose but their lack of interesting story, the very thing she claims helped them sell. I may be more sophisticated than the average reader – obviously darling.. but for all I have problems with many of the best sellers I equally take issue, the same issue, with the award winners. While they are full of elegant, unconventional and complex prose, they often sacrifice story in order to maintain this style, because the truth of the matter is the two are never separate. I would go further, nothing is ever separate, including your approach.

This is the fundamental flaw with Story Genius. It continually separates things that are inseparable, creating a sort of hierarchy of consideration with her one concern obliterating all others.  One wise reviewer pointed out that its done in the name of flogging her wares. The oft touted belief that without the surety of the seller, you’d never make a buck. It’s the same thing that stops a PM from shrugging and saying, mate I can’t predict the future, but we’re hopeful.  Instead we lie  – but in order to uphold that lie we twist everything and render it useless.

Take her approach to pantsting and plotting, both of which she cites as myths. She debunks the myth of pantsing by first admitting many great writers do it, (but you know not you.. ) and second by claiming that it persists only because it’s the easy option.

But if pantsing leads to failure, why is it so damn seductive?.. Simple: we’re hardwired to do what’s easy. – Lisa Cron

I can’t believe any writer would ever write that sentence.

And okay, she isn’t a writer, she is an agent, a story consultant, which explains the emphasis on flogging and wares. Yet she wrote this book, she created her ‘method’ surely she has some understanding? All I can say is I may be a rubbish planner, but I would still chose it and housework and treating a crocodile with gonorrhoea over writing. It is the writer’s eternal paradox

I hate writing. I love having written

Plotting she dismisses as surely each and every plotter ever, didn’t consider character.. em… She also takes aim at other well known methods, for the very same reason. None  – not even the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell consider the internal struggle of the character, concerning themselves solely with plotting the external.

..these guides zero in on the sequencing of events in and of themselves as if each “hero” gets tossed into a one-size-fits-all gauntlet. So something “big” happens by page 20, something “dangerous” by page 50.. and so on. Successful stories often do follow the external patterns these guides set forth, so its deceptively easy to believe that all you have to do is ape the shape.. – Lisa Cron

All of which echoes my own concerns. Story follows a certain organic path, by its nature it’s an exploration of a problem, a moment of change and all that entails. It’s easy, like horoscopes, to apply generalities to almost every successful one out there, if you are flexible enough about what ‘big’ means, just as easy to ignore that something equally ‘dangerous’ happens three pages later, and then again four pages on. The more problematic issue is when we try to change the story to fit the model, shifting that dangerous moment to an earlier scene so it’s at the right place. When in essence we separate form and content.

I recently had a discussion about Remember the Titans with a writer who believed it failed as an example of the Hero’s Journey, because there were multiple protagonists and there was no wise mentor. In actuality most of the characters have stories that function more like obstacles standing in the way of the Coach’s goal – to harmonize his team and make them successful. While the Coach works in the role of both hero and mentor. He must guide the young players to be better than their peers, their parents and their fears, in doing so he also points the way to himself. The other writer had applied such a literal interpretation of Campbell’s model that he couldn’t tolerate even these slight variations.

Cron’s desire to marry character with plot and structure very much meshes with my own view, yet despite this claim, in reality she seems to be effectively separating them at every step; identifying one aspect then moulding and adjusting the other to fit in. The example she uses throughout, a story her friend is writing, and I presume she is guiding, doesn’t appear to be an actual novel. And I can understand why. We start with a dog and a woman who doesn’t like dogs and end up with a writer with a partner on life support, a rabid stalker-stroke-fan, an alternate time lime with a girl breaking down on a football pitch, a studio deadline, and a famous actors dog…

Apparently it’s all about how our Protag is afraid to love – which leads to her kidnapping a dog which she doesn’t love and will never love, because she doesn’t love dogs but it will help her write a script all about the power of love…

I know, I know. It’s just as easy to make a story sound ridiculous as it is to make it fit the three act structure. But my eyebrows were disappearing further into my hairline with every plot  – sorry, character motivation, we explored. It felt disjointed and painfully contrived. Cron’s blueprint is hinged around identifying your characters inner struggle – something she designates the third rail, in the belief that like the third rail on a subway train, it’s what drives your story and by default your plot. The problem is that despite understanding there is an influence between the internal and external, they are still two distinct things in her head. And they are created as such. Then she simply searches, or directs her writer to search, for anything that might tie them together, no matter how tenuous they feel, no matter how often they have to rely on coincidence and convenience.

She has decided she is going to have to save Ruby from herself by removing her from her house and sweeping her off to wherever Nora lives (I know, I know, people will wonder how in the world one adult would have the power to do that to another. I’ll figure something out… ) – Jennie Nash in Story Genius by Lisa Cron

In pursuit of her one universal truth she has cast aside all other considerations, including plausibility and bizarrely for a character-based approach, character. There is never any question of who Ruby is. Her entire personality is distilled into one belief, the one which is her third rail. Again I find myself not entirely in disagreement. I’ve never particularly ascribed to the theory that your character must be fully worked out, in the sense that much of who your character is will never be revealed in your story. Sherlock Holmes and the Prostrate Exam is none of any readers concern. However, I’m not sure that her method has anything to do with character at all, and that she hasn’t in fact just switched terms on us. There is so much simplicity in this approach that I cannot see the character’s desire as anything other than the character’s goal by another name. Her internal struggle or ‘misbelief’ is just more obstacles. Her origin scene is just another inciting incident. Because we aren’t shaped that easily by one event. If changing our belief system where that easy we’d all be psychotic. We’ve taken the external plot structure and dressed it up in ‘character-y’ sounding words.

For all the talk of brain science, which again by any other name is simply psychology or rather the neurological underpinnings of our understanding of it, there is very little scientific rigour in evidence. Even the Myers-Brigg test is more sophisticated and that only measures four out of the agreed upon five personality factors, which determine much of our behaviour and how we will respond to external events. Take Sherlock again – while I haven’t given a great deal of thought to his prostrate, should I chose to I could well imagine how it might go. Why? Not as the third rail suggests because I have some notion of his one defining belief, but rather because I know what kind of man he is. Sanguine about matters that others find squeamish, arrogant to the point he always presumes he knows best, plain speaking as he believes efficacy trumps (others) ego’s, yet finds it difficult to deal with his own shortcomings, physical vulnerabilities as much as any other.

Knowing the who and what of your story, knowing that one does not exist without the other, character always driving plot, the external always impacting on the internal, is the best guide to writing I can think of. But Cron isn’t interested in guiding. Guiding is for those who believe in the myth of ‘the shitty first draft.’ To letting it all pour out. Forget guiding principles when you can tick boxes. Yet in that lovely contrary way that writing has, the more she limits us the more the story meanders. Her tightness of focus in character and worldview leading to an external plot that escalates in ever increasingly ridiculous events –  sister-napping, dog napping, coma’s, deranged fans –  inexplicable behaviour.. again dognapping? – and disconnect from the core message – love is worth it.. again dognapping?? You know those Hollywood films you watch where you spend the entire thing thinking, but why didn’t they just *insert obvious sensible action*?

According to Cron actually making sense is irrelevant. Cause brain science. I suspect brain scientists might want to disagree. She poo-poos the notion of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ claiming we have no control over it, that we are in fact hard wired to believe, that it is an evolutionary tool, a means of figuring out ‘what if’.

We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality.  – Lisa Cron

Noticed the problem? I’m fairly sure I’ll never find myself with a writing partner I never married lying in a coma, a sister who kidnaps me for my own good, a studio boss who wants to replace me with a fanfiction/stalker and the deep seated belief that kidnapping a dog will solve all this. That’s not a ‘what if’ I’m ever going to ask, nor am I even sure what I would be asking. Credibility matters. Plot matters.

I’m a character writer, I’m supposed to say it doesn’t.

But ..

PLOT MATTERS

Cron is absolutely determined that our internal struggle is the only thing that really matters; that external events need only work like switches on a railway track triggering our emotions, but beyond their ability to connect, the shape and form they take are utterly without meaning.

Yet if I say to you there was a pile up on the motorway your husband drives everyday.. I don’t need to tell you about your fear of abandonment because your mum always missed parents night, or that time you lost your pet turtle when you were five, you can in fact have lived a life without any bereavement at all and you’ll still have a pretty good idea of how gut wrenching such an announcement would be, how potentially life altering even those few minutes of uncertainty would feel. The external matters because it’s the world we have to navigate. It’s the world that smacks us down, lifts us up, terrifies, bewilders and excites. If we’re using story to figure out how to predict and survive what might be coming, it matters who we are, but it also matters what we face. Even the seemingly fantastical are often grounded in real day present fears, an apocalypse by another name is disaster. War, famine, plague – these are realities people through time and in the present day have had to deal with. Dystopia’s tend to speak to our fear of political control and to the need to conform, the consequences of not belonging, and again they draw from world’s we know have existed, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Iron Curtain to the incredible tales of North Korea.

Connection isn’t enough, story works best when plot and character are so interwoven you cannot separate one from the other. Its why Batman only works in Gotham, while Superman just makes it look dirty. It’s why hi-concept sells despite all that poor prose and idiotic characters. Ever heard of how the team behind Alien got the green light?

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It’s the most famous tagline that’s never been used. Because all the emotion you need is in those three words, that one simple idea, event, what if, is what everything else flows out from. And sometimes that what if can be internal, or character based. Lolita. Animal Farm. Forrest Gump. Edward Scissorhands. We should be careful not to confuse complicated with complex. One has depth, but can usually be distilled down quite easily to a simple idea, event, individual. The other just meanders wildly and leaves the reader bewildered.

Cron’s story has no what if. Her very base premise, detailed in the blurb, the introduction and the opening chapters, is ignored. Ruby’s dilemma is convoluted, her fear of losing someone she loves natural and identifiable, but it’s disconnected from the story that is being told, from the initial idea dreamt up:

I kept thinking about a story with a woman at the centre who doesn’t like dogs. That’s all I had – this woman with this strange and somewhat unpopular characteristic – Jennie Nash in Story Genius by Lisa Cron

became..

what if a woman who’s spent her whole life believing she’s successfully hedged her bets against love (of people, of things, of dogs) is on the verge of losing everything – the one person she’s felt close to, her lifelong career and her grasp on reality? Mad with grief she has one chance to set things right but first she must convince those around her that she’s not suicidal so she devises a scheme to steal a dog… – Jennie Nash in Story Genius by Lisa Cron

It goes on…

..but when she can’t get rid of the dog..

And on..

..is what makes the inevitable grief of loss endurable.

Then ends with Cron’s applause…

Bingo!

Me – I’d say go back. There is one word in that initial idea, one word that resonates: Unpopular. And it seems oddly potent that it’s the one idea she’s refused to address in favour of a much more popular theme: better to have loved and lost..

Many writers and critics of writing would say that in the end we’re all writing about the same few things. Some might even go as far as saying we’re all writing about death: dying unloved, dying alone, dying unremembered, dying too soon… But themes, however powerful, aren’t what we write. They are what emerge from what we write. They are the dark shadows that lie beneath and the more you try to address them directly the more they slip through your fingers. It is the concrete world that allows us to grasp them. Cron’s basic premise, the what if’s, the power of emotion, is undeniable, it’s her failure to connect that successfully with the surface, the concrete form of story, that illustrates how much the two work together and fall, apart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Do You Do It?: Plotting, pantsing and gardening.

As someone who doesn’t regard The Rules as great dictates chipped into stone and then dissolved into binary ether and sent forth to confound us all (or even something deserving a capital), I feel like I should begin with an apology. There’s a possibility this might get a little biased…

I’m a pantser – which is an odd word for a Brit and always makes me want to assure folk I’m not just wandering around the house in my knickers.

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It’s never felt like a choice as much as a compunction. Something’s are bone deep. This is the way I write. I love the idea of organising my head. I periodically attempt it, before, during, after – more during and after. I like the surety, the systematic certainty of it whispers to me and I have often tried to whisper back, but for me when I create, I must create. That’s simply how it works. Only in the act do I find my inspiration.

Don’t get me wrong, for all I talk of feeling the lure of the planner, I know well how alluring the pantser (ye know without that name sullying it) can seem. They are the epitome of the romantic writer, ink smudged across their pensive faces, caught in the mania of creation, the passionate scribbles of the possessed. We’re all a little in love with that image of ourselves, mostly because we know the reality and yeah, pants might be a better description..

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This debate goes right to the top. King calls himself a ‘discovery writer’, believing he doesn’t create anything, just keeps chipping away, one word at a time until he uncovers the story.

Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses. ~  On Writing, Stephen King

George RR Martin believes in Gardeners and Architects.

There are some writers who are architects, and they plan everything, they blueprint everything, and they know before the drive the first nail into the first board what the house is going to look like… And then there are gardeners who dig a little hole and drop a seed in and water it with their blood and see what comes up.. they don’t how big it’s going to be, or what shape it’s going to take. I am much more a gardener than an architect.  ~ GRR Martin

As for the plotters, it would be so tempting to go with Patterson, whose entire writing is an outline. However there are a few others who have come out in favour of the planned approach. Grisham has claimed the more time dedicated to preparation the better the final work while JK Rowling imagines this is a basic outline…

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Beyond them are the middle-grounders, the ones who believe we’re all on a sliding scale that tends to tip us towards the middle where we’re all slightly pantsing and slightly plotting. Oddly in this instance I think the dichotomy has merit. There are inherent differences between the two that I believe matter and will show in the end.

That’s not to fully sway you towards one when you’re naturally drawn to another. Part of the reason I think the distinction is relevant is that how we write is such a personal issue that trying to force ourselves to fit to someone else’s style can be crippling. Lisa Cron, in Story Genius states that she believes only one percent of writers are capable of holding all their story in their head – nice to know I’m finally a one-percenter even if I can’t afford a car. Of course she also believes that both plotting and pantsing are flawed and instead preaches her blueprint, somehow magically different from your bog standard outline as it focuses on your character and their internal struggle rather than external events. Which in turn brings me to my second concern, something created almost entirely by the misdirection of semantics.

A blueprint is an outline. Which is also a plan. Which is something we plot. This is the heart of a plotter. It’s not someone who has an idea, or a scene playing in their head. It’s not someone who only writes events, it doesn’t preclude those who don’t delineate chapters, or call characters A,B and C. As we can see from JK’s outline, her concern isn’t simply plotting action, certainly not in detail, but takes a big picture approach, laying out the underlying thematic arcs, ‘prophecy’, key relationships, ‘Hagrid & Grawp’ as well as important scenes, such as ‘Ron and other w’s told about fathers injury’. Whether you snowflake from thematic logline to intricate outline, or research everything to do with police procedure before killing off your first victim, the point is you are amassing a body of material so you will know what to write.

Many pantser’s have an idea of something when we sit down to write. What that something is will vary considerably, not just person to person but work to work. I free write many shorts, I usually have a story idea in mind when I write a novel, not much when I started my first three, but as time has gone on, the list of what I would like to write just keeps growing, giving me plenty of time to ruminate on them – although I rarely get much past  a series of vague images in my head. Sometimes a scene or a unique character as well. Like I said it varies. Saying that adds up to a plan is like getting in the car to go on holiday and remembering to pack underwear. I may even have some sense of the destination, but it’s a long way away and I have no idea how I’m getting there or even if I will. I’m prepared for that but I haven’t planned for it. And that to my mind makes a difference.

Where you put the emphasis will guide where you put the emphasis in your story. If I’ve packed sunscreen, I’m going to be looking for the sun. I’ll drive south, to the coast. If I know how much money I have I’ll plan ahead to make sure I can stretch it out, know where the cheap petrol stations are, good camping or luxury hotels.. The more I know before hand the more it will inform the decisions I make, no matter how much I believe I am open to change.

But as I said, I’m not sure it’s a choice. Lisa Cron wants us to put the emphasis on characters. I’ve yet to read a story where the characters, their wants and needs, behaviour and personality weren’t a defining factor. Not necessarily to the benefit of the work, and that probably comes down to things you’re not even aware of. If you naturally incline towards a fascination with character it will show in your work; you’re always looking for interesting attitudes, unusual relationships. If you like battles and magic systems, rich playboys or sexy werewolves, it will show not by lack of characters but in how they come across – and not everyone will have a problem with that. Recycled tropes are as popular as ever. Lisa herself cites 50 Shades of Grey as an example of how her method works, but there are some of us character writers who think its an example of how it doesn’t work, sales be damned.  Planning or pantsing will not change this, but it might indicate slightly which you are more likely to benefit from.

As a character driven writer I need to let the characters lead. A plot driven writer is more likely to stunt the development of her characters and I wonder if it’s because they’ve boxed themselves in with a plan? Take JK for instance, a planner. It was evident early on in the books that Harry and Ginny would end up together, yet by the time it happens, I wouldn’t have shipped them for all the gold in Gringotts.  She hadn’t given Ginny time to breathe or room to grow into an interesting character in her own right. It felt like ticking a box.

I can’t help but feel the approach we take is knitted into our mental makeup – the very reason I know many dislike thinking of it as a dichotomy. Yet I can’t dissuade myself from this idea that our attitude defines our work in myriad nuanced, even unseen, yet important ways. I don’t know what is going to happen until its happening, til I’m there living, breathing, fighting.

No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader ~ Robert Frost

Science has identified something known as the incubation effect, where creativity is fostered by a wandering mind. Ever get great ideas in the shower? Or taking the dog for a walk? These rote mechanical tasks free up our higher minds to make incredible leaps. Conversely when we try to force our focus we tend to follow well laid plans, the road already known. To take planning and pantsing to their absolute, I create as I write – or to be more specific as I type. This is my rote mechanical aid. While when I plan I sit thumbs twiddling, waiting for inspiration before I write a single word. Even there the attitude of the planner is defining, the emphasis always on the before. Before we write we must have something tangible, concrete in hand, fuelled by a belief that we cannot spin nothing into gold, cannot discover something that doesn’t already exist.

Maybe all writers need to believe enough to take that leap. Maybe that’s why every time, every story I think I got nothing.. until I start. I keep hoping it’ll get easier to trust I will always be able to unearth something, but thus far.. And sometimes I think that is the true lure of the plan. Writing is hard. Planning is naming spaceships and thinking about how much I really love my eccentric new android – he’s got a thing for cockroaches, so cute! – planning can very easily fall into procrastination. No matter how much stuff you accumulate the only thing that’s truly tangible is the writing. Until then you’re still in the before, facing a blank page.

I promised myself this wouldn’t turn into a plea to pants and its worth reminding myself that I love Harry Potter and never really liked King. And who can ever remember how his stories end?

As I said it’s a matter of listening to your bones. In my first ever drafts I got consumed with research to the point it was crippling and it distracted me from what I really wanted to write, what I believe is my strength: character dynamics. Likewise when you consider Tolkien it’s that world which has blueprinted an entire genre, the history, languages, geography and breath-taking scope that works. How much of this lies in planning and plotting? Martin is six books and thousands of words in and does anyone feel closer to a resolution? He, like King, has always struck me as a man who is exploring the nature of the darkness within us.

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It’s easy to read that as me condemning all plotters to the formula or action-heavy genres – which in itself isn’t a condemnation unless you’re not overly fond of reading it – but Joss Whedon, a man who puts huge emphasis on structure, can deliver larger than life personalities better than almost any screenwriter working today. He does however fall victim to trope-holes more than I suspect a man less inclined to plan would. I suspect it happens most when he is hemmed in not by his own creativity, however it comes to him, but other’s expectations.

I wrote down everything that I thought would be useful–what we hadn’t had enough of, what I thought had clicked, what we could improve–and also things that excited me about the second season. Once I had that memo out to the writers I felt like I was ready for anything. I wasn’t, but it was cute that I thought so ~ Joss Whedon

And that’s really how I’d like to leave it. The most important thing to remember when it comes time to try and figure out the best approach is to shake yourself free of any expectations, romantic notions of a real writer, wannabe’s selling you their latest four pronged, ten-horned, thrice guaranteed formula. Listen to you. There is room for every kind of writer, even bad ones. Thank god 😀

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