All Posts Filed in ‘on writing

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100×19: Why I write

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A couple of weeks ago, I had a message from Mike. Mike is an all-around wonderful human who I’m always excited to see, as well as the owner of a carefully thought out blog about things worth thinking carefully about. Gentleman Caller and I have had more than one spontaneous conversation about what a generally great human we think he is, and how his perspective on anything always makes it better.

But then he asked me for a favour, so now he’s dead to me.

Just kidding — he said I had élan, so he gets as many favours as he likes. The favour is this blog — kind of a chain letter of bloggers talking about why they write. Mike’s blog is here. Here’s mine:

Why do I write?

Gentleman Caller asked me this, maybe the second time we ever hung out as more than friends. And I realised when he did that I’d been waiting for someone to ask me that for years.

But there’s not really a straightforward answer: I write because I always have. I write because I can’t not. I write because I don’t know what I think until I can put it in words and move them around. I write because I love language. I write because characters turn up in my head and demand to be let out. I write because I’m better at it than I am at anything else.

I write because I write, I guess.

How does my writing differ from others in its genre?

In fiction, that’s a work in progress. Confidence in my own voice and what I have to say has been a life-long battle that I’m still mostly losing.

In blogging, I don’t know that it does. I’m sporadic at best, leaking styles and feelings and subject matter all over the internet.

Professionally, I think I have a knack for simplicity that most others don’t. I can figure out what things mean, and I can get that into fewer words than most.

How does my writing process work?

Left to my own devices, I like a cafe of a morning. An enormous milky coffee and some white noise; maybe something tasty for brunch. I take my laptop out most Saturdays and Sundays, and lurk in my regular haunts for a few hours, typing and people watching.

The best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received were “you have to do the work” and “first drafts always suck”. I saw this today and had one of those sudden, hard stings of identification. The moment when I got good at writing — when I stopped dabbling and started creating, when my career took off and my fiction started to come together — was the moment I stopped worrying about whether what I wrote sucked. First drafts always suck.

There’s no magical muse fairy who’ll turn up some day and deliver you the perfect words in the perfect phrases. Just write something — write anything — and then make it better.

What am I working on?

I have this 8,500-word working document for this blog. Parts of it are published already; parts of it never will be. It’s a hodge-podge of half-baked ideas and semi-formed paragraphs and the odd total mystery (one entry says only “Mirrors everywhere???”).

I have all sorts of things I want to write about here, but no time or courage to do so. There are blogs in my head about apathy, about history, about politics and gender roles. There’s more than one about sex as it relates to all those others. I still want to try some kind of ethical lifestyle situation too. One day.

One day.

Why do I write what I do?

I have a couple of recurring themes. Family is the first one — what it means to be family, what it means to be blood, how those things can be different and how they affect people. I’m adopted, so that one’s maybe not a huge reach.

Other than that, the nature of people. Of kindness. The way we all have the capacity to be better, to try harder, but on the whole we don’t really want to. Or can’t bring ourselves to. Or are scared to. I want to say so much more about humanity, about kindness, about strength and compassion… but mostly I don’t, because I worry I’m not quite informed enough, or people will think I’m full of myself.

I like the atmospheres of things, too. Everything fictional I’ve ever written has started with or been grounded in a place — a feeling in space and time. The weather there. The flora. The way the air smells. I get myself into a story through its surroundings, and writing about places and times other than my own is one of the key delights in making words up.

Nomination time!

Rachel Brown, come on down! I met Rach through blogging, although she’s a friend of friends. We have long-standing writerly crushes on each other, and she’s another hero of mine for the things mentioned above — she’s kind, compassionate and generous… and bold about being so. I pretty much just think she’s the actual best. Go and read her blog at once.

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Prompt from last year: Unfulfilled childhood dreams

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Tiny Katie’s greatest wishes:

  1. Ride a unicorn.
  2. Do a backwards walkover.
  3. Be a published author.
  4. Get turned into a vampire.
  5. Become Elizabeth Wakefield, only way better. And a vampire.
  6. Marry Taylor Hanson.
  7. Get older.

I’M TOTALLY WAY OLDER. HA! I WIN.

I guess I’m lucky in a way — I’ve always only really wanted to write. I harboured vague dreams of being a… actually, I’ve been staring at that sentence for five minutes, and can’t come up with anything else I ever seriously wanted to be. A Latin scholar? Someone who was allowed to get her ears pierced? A superhero?

As a kid, I fully expected to be published by the time I was 21. But although I wrote CONSTANTLY through my teens, I never finished anything. At about 17, I applied for a couple of writing workshops at Vic, where I wrote some short stories I didn’t like very much. Then I wrote an Angel spec script which my dad and his endless networking managed to get to one of the highish-ups on LOTR. We had a meeting that I don’t remember because I was TERRIFIED the whole time, in which she told me that I had talent, and if I was willing to workshop the script with her a bit, she’d consider passing it on to some people for me. My failure-obsessed brain heard “not good enough”, and I never called her back.

WAIT, LITTLE ME. WHAT?

After that, I spent a year avoiding my classes to write a novel I got within a chapter of finishing. Then I read it, realised it was terrible, and threw it out. This was a good idea, because it really was terrible. Then I dropped out of uni and wasted a bunch of years dabbling in fanfiction (immediate gratification! Fans! Total freedom from the constraints of plausibility!) and rampaging about the internet. And now I’m approaching 29, and coming up to two-and-a-half years of SERIOUS WRITING and the prospect that I’m going to be well into my thirties before anything comes of this. I can live with that, but Tiny Katie would be HORRIFIED.

But then, Tiny Katie’s role models were Elizabeth Wakefield and Peter Pan, so I was never going to end up all that balanced.

By now, I mostly thought I’d know more. I thought I’d understand how the world works and what it’s all meant to be about. I thought I’d have been to Rome, and that I’d probably live in the US, and if I didn’t have a house and kids (since 28 always seemed, to me, to be about AS OLD AS IT WAS POSSIBLE TO GET) I’d at least be working up to it. And either writing books about AWESOME VAMPIRES, or working on a TV show about them.

It’s not that simple, Little Me. And Taylor Hanson is already married.

But, you know, although I WANTED to write something real earlier, I wasn’t READY to. I didn’t know enough about life and people and relationships to say the things I wanted to say. I didn’t really have anything TO say. It’s entirely possible I still don’t! But I think I’m getting there.

Although it really does SHIT ME that I’ll never do a walkover.

—–

Anyway. I was looking for some excerpts of stuff to post with this. I couldn’t find the Angel spec (which, from memory, is AMAZINGLY PORTENTOUS AND DRAMATIC) but I DID find a Buffy spec I was working on after that (to amuse myself. YOU KNOW HOW IT GOES). So here’s some bits from that, because… just because.

I’m working up to posting some scenes from Sparks. Let’s set the bar REALLY LOW. Go, teenage Katie, go!

(Scripty mark-up removed for ease of reading.)

—–

BUFFY
No! Okay? Death doesn’t bother me…
(off Giles look)
Okay, I’m lying. Deal with it. The issue is not me.

GILES
(getting it)
Xander.

BUFFY
Him and Willow. And Oz now, too—

She breaks off again as the doors swing open and Willow wanders in, looking suspiciously casual.
WILLOW
(monumentally awkwardly)
Oh, hey Buff! Say, I was just wondering if you were… going to class…

Buffy turns and checks the time on the clock. It still says lunchtime.

BUFFY
In a half hour.

WILLOW
Right! Because that’s when it is.
(an intensely uncomfortable moment passes)
See you then!

She leaves. Buffy watches her go, then turns back to Giles and picks up her speech again.

BUFFY
God, even Cordy. This is my deal; I have to do it. And I know they want to help…

GILES
They won’t just let all this go, Buffy. They made a choice to help you, and we have to respect that.

We move to the doors…

…And through them. In the hallway outside the library, Xander, Oz and Willow are holding a quiet but furious confab.

XANDER
So?

WILLOW
I think Buffy hates us now.

OZ
I don’t know, guys. Tense silence, short answers—maybe the world’s just ending again.

XANDER
Yes! It’s not us, it’s doom. I like it. I’m running with it.

WILLOW
It didn’t feel like the world was ending. When the world ends she’s usually less… twitchy.
(beat)
Oh, she tapped her foot. Buffy tapped her foot.

XANDER
Crap. She hates us.

OZ
You guys are really reading a lot into much, much less.

—–
SCHOOL – AFTERNOON

It’s after school. Kids are clearing out, the stragglers packing away their books and heading home. Buffy skirts a cautious path around them, eyes wary. She spots Oz, hoisting his backpack and guitar case and heading down the corridor with a band member. She ducks behind a handy soda machine as he passes, then slips past them and slides sideways into the library. Buffy peeks through the doors to be sure she’s alone, and then turns, satisfied she’s evaded the gang.

Xander and Willow are sitting side by side on the table, facing her.

XANDER
(good cop)
So!

He raises his eyebrows: here we are. Willow crosses her arms and puts on her serious face. Here we’re staying.

WILLOW
(bad cop)
So.

XANDER
What are we doing tonight?

BUFFY
We’re not doing anything tonight. You’re injured—you guys should go home.

XANDER
That’s not the gig.

BUFFY
It’s not your gig.

WILLOW
No, it’s ours. All of ours.

BUFFY
We’re talking about the same gig, right? Sacred duty, mystical whatsit? ‘Cause it says ‘one girl in all the world’ right there on the box. Collectively, we come to more. And some boy bits.

WILLOW
We’re not slayers, Buffy—

BUFFY
And I need to remember that.

XANDER
Look, Buff—

BUFFY
Shut up, okay? I’m the slayer. You’re civilians, and you shouldn’t be patrolling with me.

WILLOW
Civilians?

XANDER
We’re sidekicks.

WILLOW
With magic. And army stuff, and wolf… power, and—

BUFFY
Funny concussions. Until I get you killed, and then—

WILLOW
Get us killed? Buffy, we’re not your puppets.

XANDER
…Or your puppies…

BUFFY
You’re not the Slayer, either.

XANDER
No. There’s this thing called free will. Not to be confused with the movie about the whale, but still very big. You have to do this; we chose to.

BUFFY
This isn’t an elective. God, this isn’t even a democracy.

There’s a moment as everyone digests this.

WILLOW
You’re firing us?

XANDER
You can’t fire us. We’re founding members. We get the newsletter.

WILLOW
We write the newsletter.
—–

LIBRARY – LATER


Buffy is collecting her things. She’s slow, clearly down as she gathers her books and slaying gear and pushes open the back door… revealing a vampire, fist raised to knock and a package clasped in its free hand. Buffy stakes it reflexively, without any drama, taking the package from its hand as it dusts. The package reads ‘RUPERT GILES’. She tucks it under her arm and turns to leave, only to discover Angel, lurking in his silent Angel-y way.

BUFFY
One of these days I’m going to stake you too.

ANGEL
I was going to get that guy for you. I was just looking for a stake.

BUFFY
Sure. Scaredy cat. How long have you been out here?

ANGEL
Long enough.

BUFFY
It didn’t occur to you to come in and back me up?

ANGEL
It sounded like you might start throwing books. I thought I’d wait out here, since they make those out of wood.

BUFFY
The guys were pretty…
(long pause)
…paper is wood?

ANGEL
Are you okay?

BUFFY
I guess. No. I’m the slayer. They’re my responsibility.

ANGEL
They’d probably disagree.

BUFFY
So, if you got a papercut…?

ANGEL
To my heart?

BUFFY
Oh. Right.

—–

I’m posting this almost entirely for the the “or your puppies” line, which ISN’T EVEN FUNNY unless you watched Buffy and know Oz was a werewolf. Oy.

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A for-realsies blog. FOR REALSIES.

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After has been going better than it has been in months. A while ago, I said something about it to a friend and she said, “oh, so you’re still writing it?”

Yes, I’m still writing it.

I’ve just stopped talking about it, because I ran out of ways to spin my lack of progress.

I’m about to start my first draft again, from the start. It’s maybe the 6th or 7th time I’ve done so, but I’m hoping that this time might be the last. I’ve thrown out or can’t use over a hundred thousand words of material. It’s frustrating, and it’s depressing, and there were a few months there were I was frighteningly close to hating the whole project. But I’ve never stopped writing – and I have no intention of that changing.

One of the walls of my bedroom is covered in post-its. I have spreadsheets and documents and flow-charts and note cards, and I still – almost a year later – don’t know how my first act should run. So I write it, and I write it, and I write it. So far, one scene – the first scene I ever wrote, months and months ago – is the only scene that stays constant. Months ago I was blogging about trying to find the feel of the universe, and in some ways, I’m still there. Some days it feels like, if nothing else, I’ll surely eventually exhaust all the ways this story shouldn’t go.

I hope so. I don’t know for sure, but I feel close. What I wrote this week – every day after work in the library – feels real. The worst part is that once I get out of the first act, I have a solid outline. I how the rest of the story goes, I just can’t work out how to get these people colliding in the right ways – and how to make the prose feel the way their world feels in my head.

But I’m closer.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it is. I always think of Patrick Rothfuss, who said — roughly — in response to fan complaints about how long it was taking him to write The Wise Man’s Fear, “You know I have to make all of it up, right?”

Honestly, it’s huge. I’m excited.

It’s funny, at this point, three years in, really knowing what it means to write a novel. To still want to write novels. To have a job where I’m paid – well – to write stuff that, if not all that interesting, is definitely satisfying, and know that I’d still rather be sweating and agonising over my laptop. Ruining my posture and my eyesight and my social life for people who don’t exist.

The idea of the tortured writer, hunched in a dark room with a bottle of whiskey and their own misery, probably holds a grain of truth. It’s a satisfying process – an amazing, rewarding, incredible process – but it’s not a fun one, a lot of the time. You struggle through the horrible days where you’re grinding out horrible words you know you’ll delete tomorrow, to get to the days where something clicks, or surprises you, or a recalcitrant character starts to talk back. Those days are incredible. On those days, I remember why I do this. Nothing else – nothing else – feels as good as that. My stomach churns and my hands shake. I get so excited I feel physically sick.

It’s a drug, essentially. And sometimes the hardest part is that I can’t share it with anyone – I can’t show you how it feels, and no one in my life will ever be able to be part of those moments, or feel it with me. The best moments of my life are always going to happen on my own.

Which is okay.

But just because I’m not talking about it doesn’t mean I’ve given up, or ever will give up. The opposite.

It doesn’t sound like the most positive recommendation, I know. It’s not really. There’s a reason that so many published authors’ top piece of writing advice boils down to “If you can do anything else, do that instead.” The idea of novel-writing as this creative fiesta, a giant free-for-all of conjunctions and characterisation, is as crazy as the maudlin drunk crying over a typewriter. Writing a novel, producing hundreds of pages of carefully structured story, is more science than art, and more slog than science. They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a skill, and at this point, I’d tell you that even more than creativity and talent, it takes being pedantic, more than a little obsessive, and obstinate to the point of insanity.

But most of all, it needs to be in you. It needs to be part of you. You need to have no choice.

So that’s where I’m at. And right now it’s kind of awesome.

—–

NB: all quotes not ACTUAL quotes, as I’m WAY too lazy to find sources. The second one is definitely attributed to David Foster Wallace at least, but I also feel like Maureen Johnson has said it well too. WHERE she might have said it is a MYSTERY. Everyone loves a mystery!

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Afterverse!

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So, Buffy and Supernatural are both shows in which good-looking people fight monsters. The same themes and scenarios (and actors) turn up in both of them, but the Winchesters’ universe is dark and damp and vaguely 70s; all blue-collar bars and classic rock. Sunnydale is bright and quirky and compact — the people there go to the mall and watch TV and wear colours. Even though Supernatural is the newer show, an iPod feels out of place there in a way it wouldn’t on Buffy… and on Buffy, the Impala would be a joke.

As much as I need Faith and Dean to hook up (and, believe me, I do), they don’t inhabit the same world.

I have the outline for After, the this-then-that. The characters are up and moving. Coco has a delightfully foul mouth. Lucas always has his foot in his. I thought Jamie was going to be cool because Jamie thinks he’s cool, but it turns out no one else is buying what he’s selling.

I’m writing, but mostly in circles. I still don’t know how their world feels.

(Tense, POV and style are all facets of this, but I’m not talking about voice here. Voice — although obviously influenced by what you like and steal and are motivated by — isn’t something I think you can engineer. It develops as you do, but you can’t consciously affect it without sounding like a stunted douchebag. The tense I’m writing in changes the atmosphere of the story, but I can’t decide to write like Elmore Leonard or Meg Cabot any more than I can grow a tail.)

I know it’s hot there. Dry and barren and broken-down. There’s crows and sun-bleached bones and carcasses by the side of the road. People ride horses and carry guns on their hips. There are tattoos and long-fingered trees and rusted-out cars. I know those things, but I can’t feel them yet. I’ve built their world, but I don’t inhabit it.

I went back and read some of Sparks the other night, just to remind myself that although the story may not have worked, I can, historically, write coherent English. The setting — the feeling — of that book centres it. Grounds it. Whitaker is an island that only exists in my mind, but I know how it feels to walk around there.

It helps that I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest. Whitaker is equal parts Deep Cove and Bowen Island, and it feels like the top of North Vancouver in October. It’s crows and firs and constant, half-hearted rain. The mist sits on the ground at night and gets tangled in the tops of the trees in the morning. Raspberry canes crowd out over the sidewalks and houses perch over streams or back into cliffs. In that world, everything is damp and heavy and lush. Everyone has an agenda. It’s seedy and unruly and slightly claustrophobic.

I wrote Sparks here, in New Zealand, mostly in summer. I don’t need to stand in a desert to write dry heat in cold rain, but I’m not comfortable in After’s world yet. I haven’t got the mood, the feel, the weight of it in my head. I wrote a whole sequence in a deserted suburban house before I realised that the house didn’t belong. I moved it outside and changed the tense and it started to click, but I’m still pushing the pieces around, looking for a way in.

It isn’t enough to build the architecture of a world — to know the rules and logic and history. You have to build an atmosphere. The setting and the characters should build on and inform each other, creating something bigger than the sum of the story’s parts. Creating a universe.

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Plotansering…

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I’m freaking out a little bit. I took the end of last week off work to finish my character work and get my ducks in a row to outline, and realised that after six solid months of planning and world-building, I pretty much have everything I need already. YOU GUYS, I COULD WRITE. LIKE. TOMORROW.

WORDS ON PAPER, IN SENTENCES. ACTUAL STORY.

Okay, so by ‘freaking out a bit’, I sort of mean FLIPPING MY SHIT. I’m flipping my shit.

For Sparks, I did a full outline before I wrote a word, and then I did a scene breakdown in a spreadsheet, to keep track of clues dropped and facts collected. Then I wrote the first chapter.

Then I re-wrote it.

For six months.

Then I got back to New Zealand and decided to get serious, and I finished it at a thousand words a day, seven days a week. I banned myself from editing. I banned myself from reading back over anything I’d previously written. If I made a change to a character or plotline, I left myself a note to change all the earlier references to it in editing, and kept going. I kept the document open and minimised at my current page, to prevent the temptation of scrolling past old words.

For After I’m going to try something different. I’m still going to write at a thousand words a day, because that seems to be my creative limit — at least while still working a 40-hour week. I’m still banning myself from reading back or editing as I go, because that way lies chaos and self-doubt and stalling. But I’m not going to do a full outline.

This feels a little like announcing I’m going to jump out of a plane without a parachute, which I genuinely think would be easier. I’m a planner, not a pantser. I can’t pants to save myself. I get overwhelmed and my words dry up and my characters don’t know who they’re supposed to be, and everyone is gripped by a paroxysm of inactivity on page 7 and — gasping — slowly chokes.

It’s always page 7, by the way. My mental leash is about 3,500 words long.

But that said, I had to have a rigid outline for Sparks. It was a mystery. Events had to spin themselves out in a certain way. But at the same time, the depth of my outline kinda bound the story up in itself — or, more, it bound the characters up in the story, and both of them suffered for it.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

— E.L. Doctorow
(From this excellent post on the subject by Timothy Hallinan.)

What I am doing is a partial outline. I know roughly where the whole story ends, and where I want to take my characters in getting there. I’ve spent a lot of time and words getting to know who they are, and the world they live in. After has a three-act structure, and I have a rough outline for act one. From that, I’ve done a scene breakdown of the first sequence of act one. When I’ve written that, I’ll break down the next sequence —  I need to see how everyone copes with the first sequence to understand how the next one will play out, but I need some framework to keep me moving from A to B. I’m hoping this is going to be a compromise that works.

(All of this, non-writers, is extended code for ‘a lot of talking to myself’. Which is also what I’m doing with this blog post. Fun!)

So now I have to use my words. Scary. It’s been almost a year since I finished the first draft of Sparks. WHAT IF I DON’T REMEMBER HOW TO MAKE FICTION WORDS? And more importantly, WHAT IF THEY SUCK?

This idea, as long as it’s still an idea, is still perfect. I haven’t stuffed it into sentences that can constrain it or ruin it. It’s all beautiful, delightful potential. I can still believe I’m good enough to write EXACTLY WHAT I INTEND TO WRITE (belly laughs echo from all other writers ever to live). Wrestling a story out of your head is scary and slippery (and exciting, and daunting, and impossible). Part of not reading back over my work is giving myself permission for my first draft to suck as much as it wants — and part of it is avoiding knowing how much that is. But now, this bit, before the first words go down and the story becomes an entity in its own right; it’s hard not to feel daunted by that bit. I want it to be good. I want it to be PERFECT. Knowing it can’t be doesn’t stop that.

So even though I COULD write tomorrow, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll need to give me at least another week of dicking around before I get up the guts.

—–

In case it’s not completely obvious, all this process stuff is just what works for me — and that’s a work in progress itself. If I’ve learned one thing from the wider interwebs, it’s that everyone’s process is different. You have to be true to whatever works for you. Cherry-pick from any advice that sounds good, but you won’t know if it will work for you until you try it.

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Sparks postmortem + bad boys

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So, I wrote this book last year, and it has a story that starts somewhere and ends somewhere, and stuff happens in the middle. Pretty cool, right?

Yes and no. It didn’t FEEL RIGHT, no matter what I did to it. And it took me a long time to realise that I couldn’t fix the problems I had with the story because I had bigger problems with the characters. They were too young, too annoying, too selfish. I had this BOY — Nate — and he was dark and edgy and angry, and I was consistently annoyed at Scarlet for secretly liking that, because she didn’t have a good reason for it other than just because that’s what 17-year-old girls do. They like boys who treat them badly — and they treat those boys badly — because when you’re 17 love seems like something that SHOULD be dark and edgy and angry.

And it seems like that because we TELL them it should be like that. Hell, I did it the other day with my ridiculous love for a murderous vampire (see also: Eric Northman, Spike, etc). And I can tell you that he’s a FICTIONAL murderous vampire, and I make better choices in reality, but… I made pretty shitty choices as a teenager. I still do. The descriptors “nice” or “kind” have never made it onto a list of what I look for in a man, because I’m KIND OF AN IDIOT. A SINGLE idiot, no less.

I started Sparks shortly after reading Twilight. But, unlike most of the people who started a novel after a dose of Sparkle Fever, I did it because I was HORRIFIED by Bella’s passive only-my-man-gives-my-life-meaning attitude, and Edward’s I LOVE BECAUSE I STALK-iness. It scares me so much that girls might see Bella Swan as a role model. The tough, awesome ladies I’ve grown up with — Buffy and Willow and Veronica and Starbuck and Stephanie Plum — seem to be vanishing under a slew of damsels in need of a DARK, ANGSTY BOY to rescue them.

I wanted to write something that had a sassy, kick-ass heroine who could take care of herself, and who didn’t rely on a dude for anything. Scarlet turned out to be all those things, but there was still a BOY, and he was still DARK and ANGSTY and not very nice. She was dark and angsty and not very nice, too, but while I was editing, I realised their relationship made me nothing but uncomfortable anyway. They don’t have a single healthy interaction in the entire story. Add to which, Scarlet spends the whole book dumping on the one fundamentally decent person in her life, but I couldn’t even point out to her how messed up that was because I wrote in first person, and SHE COULDN’T SEE IT.

It took me months to realise that all I’d done was switch the roles: I’d basically made a girl-version of the DARK ANGSTY BOY. Scarlet is cruel and manipulative and bullies weaker characters into getting what she wants — and they let her do it because she’s charismatic and quippy and has a Tragic Past. I feel as creepy about her getting the guy(s) as I did about Edward getting the girl, because the balance of power is lopsided.

Scarlet uses sex as a bargaining chip and a weapon with more than one minor character, and I wanted her to figure out why that was wrong — but without apologising for daring to write a female character who divorces sex from love like — just as for example — every bad boy ever. But it didn’t really happen that way, because she never understood what she was doing. And through it all, she’s STILL pining for the dark guy with ALL THE ANGST, even though all they do is fight. She can’t control him or bully him, which makes their relationship more balanced than anyone else’s, but it still doesn’t make it good.

I don’t feel like I’m making myself terribly clear, but I wanted to try and make this distinction up front:

I LOVE bad boys. I find their pain delicious. Hell, TIG is my favourite Son of Anarchy. Dude does corpses (and possibly horses?) and murdered an innocent mother of two, and man, I like it when he cries. I’m interested in that — in what people will do and how they cope with having done it. I like fuck-ups. I’ll probably always write fuck-ups, because I’m an anti-hero kind of girl. I’m interested in the dark bits and the grey bits and the sticky in-between bits.

 He calls it “cold-packing”. HOW GREAT IS HE?

I didn’t want to write a story with a NICE BOY, because I’m much less interested in them (sorry, nice boys! In reality, you would win!), and I wanted Nate’s snark to counterbalance Scarlet’s. I had this idea that this tough, hard-headed chick would run headlong into this tough, hard-headed guy, and lots of delicious, sparkly fireworks would result. But both of them were TOO tough and hard-headed, and I never quite worked out how they really felt about each other (it’s not like I can READ THEIR MINDS, you know!).

Scarlet says that she doesn’t believe in love, and she sets out to prove that it’s self-serving and harmful and she’d be better off without it… and the problem, I think, is that she kind of DOES. Sparks doesn’t have a happy ending (this is a whole different issue!), but treating people like shit mostly gets Scarlet what she wants. She has no real friends and goes no way towards making any, and although that backfires on her in the end, I don’t feel like she learns anything from it.

I love the bad guy, but I love the bit where they REALISE they’re the bad guy, and they’ll never have what they want because of it. I’m interested in the TRAGEDY of the bad boy story. You have to break a bad boy down to get at the creamy caramel centre — otherwise he’s just a jerk.

And Scarlet? She’s kind of a jerk.

I started this post thinking it was going somewhere feministy — around how Scarlet never really has a reason to like Nate other than that he’s hot and mean to her, and that isn’t cool, no matter how tough she is in her own right — but I’ve ended up somewhere different. Part of me is annoyed that on a girl, a bunch of fairly typical bad-boy behaviour looks much, much worse, and that’s not cool either — and part of me is interested in that mirror, because it makes it easier to see why her story doesn’t work. There’s no emotional resolution, no cathartic pus-draining moment. Her candy coating cracks, but it doesn’t shatter. I understand why she feels how she feels, and acts how she acts, but she doesn’t; and since that moment never comes, she can’t change.

How did it work out that way? I don’t know, man. I was there, after all. It seems obvious now, looking back, why all this stuff felt wrong, and why the story as a whole doesn’t work, but you’d be surprised what you can’t see when you’re looking from the inside out.

I failed objective one in the satisfying emotional journey handbook: figure out what your character is most afraid of, and crush them with it. I broke Scarlet down physically and socially, but I let her keep her security blanket: the first line of the book is “I don’t believe in love” — from page one, it should be obvious that that statement is going down. The story begins there, and ends when proven wrong — the stuff in the middle about solving a murder is just a vehicle for that journey. THE BOY, if he really is The Boy, needs to be the LYNCHPIN of that operation. And mine isn’t. He’s another kind of security blanket — what Scarlet really needed was her own Bella Swan.

WHOA.

HOW DID WE GET THERE, ANYONE WHO IS STILL READING?

I don’t mean he needs to use way too many adjectives and try and throw himself off cliffs, and I really don’t mean he needs to think that Scarlet is the only thing that makes him worthwhile — but she needs to run into him like a wall; a big, solid buttress of everything she’s avoiding, and he has to force her to deal with it. He kinda needs to be a NICE BOY. He needs to be what she isn’t, and show her what she’s missing.

Huh.

I’ve been writing this for three days now, and it’s been morphing in my grip the whole time. I’m no longer making the point I meant to make, but — for myself, anyway — I think I’ve done something better. I feel better about Sparks than I have in months — and better about trunking it, too. Maybe it should scare or horrify me that I missed all this stuff inside my own story, but, actually, it’s one of those good-tingle moments — something I created surprised me, and, at the most basic level, that’s as good as it gets. That’s why I’m here.

—–

PS: For the record, I’ve only read the first book of Twilight. But I have read this. You should too.

Post

This season on Supernatural: how to fuck up a story.

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Okay, so everyone alive in the world today knows that Supernatural is my A-1 tippy-top most best television love, right? I laugh, I cry, I feel their Winchestery pain. I have thoughts and manifestos and stories about the times in Vancouver when I crept my way onto the set by being foreign and chatty and did things like watch Castiel eat a sandwich and have a snowball fight with the crew and let Sam and Dean mock my accent. That’s just how I roll. My friends and I have a thing we like to call Supernatural Friday, where we all gather to drink wine and watch the episode on the big screen, and I knife anyone who dares to speak or breathe during it.

This is the way of things.

So, why, then, world of today, is my primary feeling about this season boredom? There’s a side of anger, sure, but it’s sort of blunted by the crushing weight of meh, whatever.

WHAT, you gasp, BUT LAST WEEK WAS AWESOME. AND SAUCE. AND AWESOMESAUCE, ALL MIXED UP.

Yeah, but.

Hey, so remember that cool dude with the pestilence and the disease? You might have forgotten because he got dispatched in about half a scene. Also, HOW COOL WAS DEATH? For one scene. And wait, did they just BLOW UP the Croatoan virus, that little sneaky zombification tool of awesome that has been floating around since SEASON 2? And, seriously folks, did they just do it OFF-SCREEN? And what’s up with Castiel? WHO KNOWS, because he only got his allocated 15 seconds of screen-time to tell us! And wait, did someone say Adam is Michael’s vessel now? I lost that, in the SIXTY BAJILLION THINGS GOING ON.

All of which were GREAT, don’t get me wrong! Death was SO FREAKING COOL, IT HURT IN MY CHEST.

And Sam has had VERY pretty hair lately, right?

But I just can’t seem to work past the fact that Krip & Co. wasted the ENTIRE REST OF THIS SEASON ON UTTER BULLSHIT. I’m just going to say it. Biggest premise ever. The WORLD ENDED. And I know they have a restrictive budget, but I wasn’t aware that it was so bad that it prohibited them from writing Sam and Dean a new conversation, because we’ve been listening to the one about how they’re SAD and TIRED and DON’T TRUST EACH OTHER for six months now.

Guys, I like it when they cry, that’s not in question. Their pain gives me joy. But dudes, it’s time to FIND A NEW TUNE OR SHUT THE FUCK UP.

This season doesn’t feel right to anyone I know, even if they can’t put their finger on why. So let’s break it down:

—–

THE COMPONENTS OF STORY, AS DEMONSTRATED BY HOT BOYS WITH GUNS

(Subtitle: How Serving the Fans Hasn’t Served the Show.)

Except for this. You guys, I am SERVED by this.

—–

Storytelling basics #1: So, conflict drives plot.

Supernatural fans think they want Sam and Dean to be happy and hug and love each other, but they don’t. No really, they don’t. All drama is driven by conflict. Without it, Sam and Dean are as boring to watch as your friends who are in love and always agree and hold hands and shit. I’m happy for those dudes, but nobody wants to spend 40 minutes watching them, either. Their story isn’t a story, because you can’t build to a resolution if there’s nothing to resolve.

Sam and Dean making up for being mean to each other last season just doesn’t have 22 episodes of mileage in it — at least not the circular, non-confrontational way the staff have been writing it. They both agree they were mean and awful and they don’t know how to trust each other, but that conversation hasn’t gone anywhere because it’s not building to anything. They made up three episodes in, and they’ve been re-hashing it ever since. Their basic positions haven’t really moved all season.

DEAN: You were mean to me last year.
SAM: Trufax. But you hurt my feelings!
DEAN: WELL YOU DID TOO >:O
SAM: Let’s pick this up again next week.

—–

 #2: And character drives conflict. AKA: If you’re not invested in the people, the story doesn’t mean shit.

This season, Supernatural has methodically killed off every recurring player on the show except for the pieces they need in place for the finale. No really, EVERYONE. Bonus points for shock value, and it does ram home the idea that no one is safe: this world is big and bad, and anyone could be next.

But that’s the problem: anyone COULD be next, so there’s no one to get attached to. Plot might be driven by conflict, but that conflict has to be driven by character, and Supernatural isn’t serving theirs.

The noisy portion of the internet has told the creative team over and over again that they want more Sam and Dean. Sam and Dean have to be together. Sam and Dean shouldn’t have girlfriends, or friends, or partners, or anyone else that might let them rely on someone other than Sam or Dean. But Sam and Dean aren’t going anywhere fast, because aside from the off-screen apocalypse that will be dealt with by other people anyway (more on that later!), they’re stuck re-hashing the same conversation every episode because they’re not allowed to explore the issues that underpin it, and they don’t have anyone else to talk to.

And when they do, they die.

—–

#3: Story is not only driven by character, it has to serve them to have any resonance.

Two characters escape this grisly fate: the sexually unthreatening father figure, and the friendly angel with the homoerotic overtones. But just to make sure that the fans don’t worry that these dudes will put a wedge in Sam and Dean’s undying love, they don’t appear very often. They get a scene or two, and then the writing staff carefully don’t mention them for the next couple of episodes so everyone is good and certain that Sam and Dean don’t love them as much as they love each other.

This serves two purposes:

  1. Their stories never get any traction, so it always feels vaguely like everyone forgot about them (hey, remember three weeks ago when they thought Castiel had DIED, but no one mentioned it until he turned up again last episode?), and
  2. Because they’ve both been vastly more interesting than Sam and Dean this season, their constant disappearances leave a big black hole of drama as they take everything worth watching with them.

 His feelings are kind of hurt by this. I can tell.

Also, moving them around the board like chess pieces means they aren’t allowed to feel like PEOPLE. (See above, re: character should drive the story, not be driven by it.) (See also, further above: Sam and Dean and their fan-serving non-conflict.)

—–

#3: Active protagonists: your main characters have to be the ones moving the plot. If they’re not, they’re not the main characters.

A huge issue for this season is the fact that Sam and Dean are essentially sidelined in any of the real action. The big showdown will happen with other characters wearing their meat, and too many episodes have climaxed (I can write that without sniggering, I can write that without sniggering…) with Sam and Dean standing on the sidelines as someone else swoops in to save the day.

It feels unsatisfying because it is.  The bulk of the action is happening around them rather than to them. Aside from being the vessels for the final fight, Sam and Dean lack either a stake in the apocalypse, or the means to fight it. Which brings me to…

—–

#4: Show don’t tell. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before!

Sam and Dean’s big conundrum this year is that they have to say yes to Lucifer and Michael in order for Lucifer and Michael to possess them, so they can have a big rumble and one of them will defeat the other and blah blah, lots of people will die. You’ve heard it.

And heard it.

And heard it.

But we haven’t seen it.

Part of the problem is obviously budget: the show can’t afford to show us all the chaos and devastation Lucifer is causing. Hell, apparently they can’t even afford Lucifer, since Mark Pellegrino never shows up (more on that later!). So various characters have to tell us: Chicago is about to be destroyed! Zombies afoot! People are bleeding in the streets! Doom, DOOOM!

Sounds bad, you think. Shouldn’t Sam and Dean just let these dudes hop on board to end all this awful-sounding trouble? (Or at least go do something about the bleeding and the doom, rather than faffing around at fan conventions?)

To which, Sam and Dean say no. A LOT. But they don’t really say WHY.

Sure, it’s been mentioned that lots of people will die, but lots of people are ALREADY dying. We know because someone tells us so at least once an episode. How do we know that the dying then is worse than the dying now, besides the fact that even Sam and Dean know that a decision on that has to wait for sweeps?

Maybe I’m just missing something, but I need to feel the stakes of either answer. The weight of that decision needs to drive the season, and I don’t feel like it has in any visceral way. But it probably can’t: there’s the rub with hinging the central conflict on a yes/no call. The results to that decision are hypothetical and in the future, and when you can’t afford to show the fallout in the present, you’re left with a consequence vaccuum. The moral grey area is DELICIOUS, and like 90% of why I watch the show in the first place (since you asked!: 6% Jensen Ackles’ freckles, 3% men crying, 1% JPad’s expression when he’s thinking really hard), but they haven’t really invested in it beyond some putzing around by Zachariah, and since there’s only two options and they’re both bad, there’s not enough mileage in them to sustain extended discussion on their own.

—–

#5: An antagonist, by definition, needs to antagonise.

Lucifer, when he shows up — which is not often — generally seems like a pretty nice dude. He just wants to have a quiet word with Sam, shoot the shit for a bit, and then disappear, never to be mentioned again. There’s no sense of tension or menace around him because he can’t take Sam over until Sam says yes, and Sam can’t say yes because, well, why would he? Nobody wants Lucifer using them as a muppet, but it’s not really an issue since Lucifer is both super duper polite about it, and can’t find Sam anyway. Problem solved! Cheeseburgers all around!

Sam realises that the cheeseburgers aren’t solving anything. Zachariah remains hopeful.

I had thought maybe Zach would end up the main antagonist for the season, since he was actually, y’know, ANTAGONISTIC — but then they killed him. Like they killed Anna and Jo and Ellen and everyone else who was either moderately interesting and/or possessed a vagina. (Speaking of, WHERE DID MEG GO? LAST FEMALE CHARACTER, PLEASE BREAK UP THIS SAUSAGE-FEST.)

—–

#6: Rats don’t push the food button if they don’t get food, aka don’t save all the good stuff for the end.

There’s an art to teasing out information across a story. I know this because I suck at it. I tend to want to wait and dump all the cool stuff on the audience at the end, where it has maximum thrills and chills. It’s been pointed out to me that this is generally a stupid idea, mostly by people who gave up before they got there.

You have to feed your story like a goldfish. No, wait, that’s a shit analogy. Like a puppy. You have to reward for good behaviour as it happens, or you’ll never make it to the dog show. That’s still shit. WHATEVER. If you can’t drop some bombs through the boring middle, people won’t hang around for the mind-blowing end. Loyalty deserves to be rewarded, and an audience’s patience only extends so far. MY patience only extends so far.

Supernatural has spent so much time hammering home the point that EVERYTHING IS HOPELESS AND AWFUL AND EVERYONE IS GOING TO DIE AND SAM AND DEAN CAN’T DO ANYTHING AND IT’S ALL A WASTE OF TIIIIIME AND…

…and you lost me. I get it, it’s awful and pointless and they can’t win. You’ve succeeded, and I will now turn off my TV, resign myself to their fate, and go do something else.

But then they did come up with a plan! Like, an episode ago. And it left them with three episodes to save the WHOLE WORLD, since they didn’t bother to take care of ANY OF IT in the preceding 19 episodes. And we’re back to now, where everything’s going gangbusters and it’s all super duper, and my primary feeling about it is REALLY, I HAD TO SIT THROUGH ALL THAT POINTLESS SHIT WHEN YOU HAD THIS UP YOUR SLEEVES?

If they’d thrown me a frickin’ bone at any point in the last six months, I’d be less inclined to be peeved about them pissing away awesome storylines in a single act now. But instead, I sat through that god-awful thing about the teenage man-witch, and Pestilence got taken down before we’d made the popcorn.

In the interest of fairness, there were a couple of great episodes, too. The End would be in my top ten of all time (and look! It showed rather than told!) and My Bloody Valentine was just DELIGHTFUL, but overall, no matter what happens this week, I don’t think this season can salvage itself in a single episode.

To quote a source:

Technically, they’ve been building up to this for FIVE SEASONS. And now they are all “You’ve invested a bazillion hours in this, and we are going to make the climax all happen in 40 minutes”. I TELL YOU WHAT, if a man tried that with sex he’d never get any again.

Preach it, Source.

Entering a story is a contract: you’re agreeing to commit to the life of the project for return on investment at the end. The journey to get there can be as amazing as you like, but if the climax doesn’t have emotional growth and satisfying story resolution, the whole thing feels hollow. Which, incidentally, was the main problem with Sparks. BOOM.