Monday, January 24, 2011

That Time At The Place With The Stuff

Because I love xkcd so much, I'm going to open with this.

Human beings, when they're talking to people they know pretty well, have inside jokes. They make references to past experiences and conversations. Interesting characters will do this as well.

Don't believe me? Watch this clip from Love Actuallybetween 5:42 and 6:00.

Now, come on, isn't that an absolutely fabulous opening?

In that opener, we get a sense of who each guy is and just how well they know each other. Because they've got these shared experiences they can reference talking to each other.

Inside jokes -- so long as they're explained enough that one knows they're inside jokes -- can be a great way of explaining just how long characters have known each other, how well they know each other, and -- depending on the joke -- can provide hints to back story that might be apparent later.

Useful, no?

So, how about those zebras?

Do you like inside jokes? Do your characters tell them? How do you feel about character's rehashing shared experiences and telling inside jokes?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Things You Don't Want Your Readers Doing (No Pun Intended)

Anyone here spend time on xkcd? If yes, high fives all around. And now, for your viewing pleasure....

Now, how is this vaguely related to anything I've ever said or done in the past on this blog (aside from the fact that it vaguely amused me)?

If you guessed writing, you get another high five.

Have you ever read a book and thought, "Okay, I now have officially no idea what the turducken is going on"? Now, if you were anything like, well, the vast majority of the kids I knew in high school, unless the book was for a class, you closed the book and, when asked about it, said "That thing's incomprehensible." And, heck, maybe even if the book was for a class, you did that.

Okay, most people give a book more than one shot. So, even if sometimes something happens and you're confused, you keep reading, because you give the author the benefit of the doubt. Somehow, some way, you tell yourself, this will all get cleared up.

Because that's the deal writers make with readers. Readers will read what we write. What we write will make sense. I'm not even talking about plot or character arcs or any of that, at the moment (though those things should definitely make sense); I'm talking about writing. The words you use.

When you put words on paper in a particular order, they should, in the end, create a sentence that makes sense. And those sentences should result in a paragraph that makes sense. And hopefully those paragraphs will... well, you know the rest.

We've all been there. You read that sentence over and think, "What was I thinking when I wrote this? Honestly, how many Cokes did I down that night? Can you even do that in English?" And, let's face it, sometimes the answer is, no, no you can't do that in English.

That's why we edit. Because we are nice authors, and we don't want our readers walking into walls, tripping on stairs, or falling into manholes as they stumble around wondering, "Seriously, what was that supposed to mean?"

Have you ever been there? Has this ever happened to you? Do you ever feel like writing you're looking at, yours or other people's, just doesn't make sense in English?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

If You Can't Say Something Nice...

Once upon a time, I was at a high school theater festival. In between shows, I got to chatting with someone from another school. We get to talking about some of what we'd seen that morning, and he asked about a certain show. I said what I thought: "I thought it started out strong, and I liked the premise, though I thought it got a little ridiculous towards the end. A bit over the top." The guy nodded thoughtfully and said, "I'll tell my director."

Face, meet Palm. You two can be friends.

Yep, I was talking to a cast member. (In my defense, people look different from more than 30 feet away. I just didn't recognize him.) (By the by, dude, if you're reading this, I really do apologize for that.)

While I didn't say the meanest things I'd ever said about a show, I know I didn't couch them the way I might have if I'd known I spoke to someone who worked on the production. After all, you put your heart and soul (or at least a hecca ton of sweat and tears -- and possibly a little blood) into a show, if someone criticizes it, it's gonna hurt.

What's this got to do with writing? I've been seeing a lot of talk on the blogosphere lately about reviews and commenting on books on blogs.

Talking about books on blogs is like being me in that auditorium. As far as you know, you are always talking to that guy from the show. Agents, editors, authors, friends of any of the above could be reading your blog. And, I know, people always say that you can't talk what people say about your work to heart -- and I've definitely a proponent of not taking things to heart -- but that's no reason not to be polite at the least.

As Ratatouille says "We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."

So, while it might be fun to go making fun of people, and while, in the privacy of my own head/home/secret underground cave, I might rage against the heinousness of whatever book I just read, I try to keep that stuff off the blog.

Because I learned that lesson in high school: Everything you're looking at it something someone spent a lot of time and effort on, and yes, sometimes they are standing there, asking what you think of it.

How do you feel about publishing reviews on the internet? Do you put them on your sites? Good and bad alike?
How do you feel when you read a negative review on a blog, even of work that is not personally connected to you?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Kids Are Different

(WARNING: Long post. For abbreviated version, skip down to the paragraph starting with the words "Okay, now that I've gone on.")

Recently, through the power of Netflix streaming, I rewatched the movie Quest for Camelot, which a voice in the back of my mind reminded me I'd once seen at a friends house at least a decade ago. Having rewatched it, I decided that aside from two nice songs, it's only got two real strong points (note: the point of this post is, actually, not to knock the movie).

  1. Cary Elwes voicing the leading guy, because, you know, he's Cary Elwes, and his voice ROCKS.
  2. Garrett (as voice by Cary Elwes) is blind.
This movie is notable in my mind, because it is the only time I can remember a kids' (as in, animated) film featuring a character, let alone a prominent one, who had any sort of disability. (If I am in some way mistaken about this, please jump in and correct me.)

Firstly, I felt that Warner Bros.'s inclusion a disabled character was, at one point, a step towards acknowledging that there are disabled people in America and saying, "Yes, even disabled people can help save their kingdom from evil." For once, we see a film breaking out of the more common Disney paradigm that the world can only be saved by ridiculously good looking, perfectly abled people (who often have bonus powers from somewhere).

Secondly, Garrett now faced some difficulties the other characters didn't (such as having to flee from a dragon -- which he couldn't see -- by jumping on rocks -- which he couldn't see -- across a pit of lava -- which he couldn't see. Thank goodness for assist birds). This made his struggles as a character all the more engaging. To be blunt,in terms of the story, it rather raised the ante on everything that he had to do. He had a harder time than the female lead, because she could see what she needed to do. Also, his experiences gave him the skills he needs to help save the kingdom. Helpful, that.

Thirdly, his experience of how he'd been treated when he lost his sight shaped his view of himself, her family, and their homeland. These factors all went into the motivations that moved him through the story and escalated the conflict. Garrett manages to both make strong points as to why he shouldn't be defined by his blindness and simultaneously define himself by it. (Oh, character angst.)

Okay, now that I've gone on and on about why Garret is definitely my favorite part of that movie, I'll circle back to my thesis. Namely, the rarity of disabled characters in books and movies. When they're included, it's generally in a "disability genre" and the books focus on being disabled instead of treating disabled characters like the abled ones.

Generally speaking, Disney -- the paragon of "kid appropriate" -- doesn't include things that it thinks will scar little kids, such as scars. Ever notice how the only characters in Disney films that maintain serious injuries throughout a flick are the bad guys?
  • Ex: Scar has a scar for all of Lion King.
  • Ex: Dorie's scars from the jelly fish attack only last on scene in Finding Nemo.
  • Ex: Mulan. Every good guy in the movie gets seriously beat up on. Does it show? Nope. They bruise once then are magically restored. They can even regrow teeth.
  • Exception: In Finding Nemo, Nemo has a bad fin, as does Gill. However, these aspects define the characters. They are not incidental aspects. They are essential aspects.
  • Exception: The Hunchback of Notre Dame has a hunchbacked MC. On the other hand, that's the primary thing we learn about his character, and he still loses the girl to an abled, and ridiculously good looking (read: Disney ideal) supporting male.
Disney believes that showing an injury lasting an entire film will be damaging to kids, so they generally remove indications of such things after one scene. However, this means that kids are rarely shown characters, especially ones in prominent roles, who are not fully abled.

If 18-20% of Americans are disabled, that would suggest that most kids, if they aren't disabled themselves, know or are related to a person with a disability. So would it really be traumatizing to see a disabled character in a book or movie treated the same as the other characters?

My previous works have not included a large number of disabled characters; however, I do have on character in my head with a disability, and her day will come. Disabilities are a fact of life, even in modern times, and I think it might be nice if books and movies written for kids reflected that.

What do you think? How do you feel about disabled characters in books and movies for kids? Have you ever written a disabled character?

** The title for this post derives from the song "Kids are Different," which is the theme song for the group Kids on the Block, a puppet troupe that teaches children about living with disabilities.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sorry, My English Not So Good

In a continuation from my previous post on non-English wording, I'm moving on to something vaguely related: bad English. I don't mean cussing and "bad words." I mean a character just trying to speak English and not really succeeding.

My MC from my NaNo project is English Second Language (more like fourth language, but it's the first Earth language, so, sure, ESL), and after I thought about it, I concluded the English I had her speaking might just have been too good.

After all, no matter how good you are at picking up languages, you're probably never going to be spotless. You'll likely have some sort of accent or some verbal tick you use to fill time while you speak. I know my French can get pretty atrocious in the conjugation department if I don't think too hard, and I spent years on that. I know some people who are whizzes at language, and even they aren't flawless. So, McKinley, much as I love her, can't speak perfect English. Certainly not idiomatic English.

This is something I've chosen to embrace. I've started trying to look out for innocent mistakes one can make with English and with English expressions. My favorite, mined from my Chinese teacher, for incessantly: non-stoppingly. Love it.

My question is, how annoying can it get reading a character with rocky English. She's not bad, of course, going to an American school, but I'm wondering how far I can push this characteristic before someone decides to throw the book against the wall and say, "To heck with this. I'm reading something where people speak g.d. English." Like those days when you had to read Huckleberry Finn in English class and you had to pause and think about what he was really trying to say there.

How do you feel about characters with rocky English? Do they annoy you? Amuse you? Confuse you? Have you ever written a character whose English always comprehensible? How hard would you find that?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Todavía no habla español? Inglés?

Once upon a time, I went on a little wonder about the use of non-English phrases in books written for English speakers. Well, I find myself returned to that thought again lately.

In some recently invented spare time, I've been watching the TV show Firefly. This is for two reasons. 1) I'd been told I'd like it. 2) I'd also been told that if I don't watch it, I need to turn in my Nerd Card, and I like that Card.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, characters will randomly break out into Chinese. I don't just mean a quick hello at the start of meetings. No, they'll transition languages mid-sentence. For those of us less than fluent in Chinese (still me), sometimes you just end up sitting there thinking "what was that?" Or, if you know a tad of Chinese, you're thinking "I don't know if that means what you seem to think it means," or even, "Umm... you know you could just have said that in English, right, and let the audience understand? You know that wasn't a cuss, right?" Heck, I've been informed that you can be fluent in Chinese and sometimes you're still thinking "Ahem? What's happening?"

This begs the question, is there a benefit to using non-English words in books written for English speakers. (Or, to expand, any words not in your target language?)

This question might actually become relevant to me because back in NaNo, for the first time, I wrote a book containing non-English dialogue. My MC and her best friend, Amada, occasionally jump into Spanish. For the most part, I try to compensate in dialogue tags for the non-Spanish speakers (like myself), but I know I'm going to have to ask my betas if it works.

I must admit, I'm somewhat torn about the use of non-English language, especially outside of words people likely know. I know from experience that it can be challenging to read books where there's a lot of words you don't know because they're in a language you don't speak. It can leave you feeling like you're missing something important, and you might be, if the author doesn't compensate well in the rest of the text to catch you up.

On the other hand, if something that's non-English is authentic to certain characters, should an author fight it? After all, growing up I knew a lot of people who spoke a different language at home than at school, and when they ran into other people who spoke that language, they could transition into it pretty darn fast. So, it strikes me as something a character might do as well. Also, it lends a certain flavor to a character and a scene, and that might be a flavor that needs to be there. ¿Estás de acuerdo?

How do you feel about it? Do you ever use non-English in your writing? How do you work around it for non-speakers? How do you feel about it as a reader?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Happy New Year

Hi all. Hope your New Year's off to a good start. Sorry I missed the holidays. I went to visit my cousin, which meant lots of good food and too many art museums, but also no Internet. I hope you had a good holiday season as well.

Now, we all know what New Years means: New Year's Resolutions!

And just like usual, I like posting my goals online. Makes me feel accountable. I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours. ;-)

Writing Resolution
  • Edit and revise Thief Book, Cordamant's Heir, and Legal Aliens. (That's right. Nothing new. Just making myself get the old stuff done.)
  • Mini Goal: Edit 1k words a day.
  • Read 65+ books this year.
  • Read Complete Works of William Shakespeare (This is the one where we know I've lost my bloody mind. Will count watching it as reading it.)
  • Read the Bible cover to cover. (Yes, I've lost my mind. But, after years of my Dad telling me I need to understand the Bible to be educated in Western culture, I've succumbed and will actually read it all.)
  • Post 3 times a week. Most likely MWF, but we'll see.
  • Get back into the blogosphere and read more blogs.

We'll see how all that goes. Probably, I've lost my mind. How are you doing? What are your resolutions?