Thursday, 22 October 2020

Learning From Jurassic Park III

One of the first pieces of writing advice that I received was to examine my favourite movies and books to see why they worked.  This is good advice, but I've actually discovered that it can be more helpful to examine movies that I should have enjoyed, but didn't.

I love the Jurassic Park movies.  They're a great combination of action and terror.  But just about everyone agrees that Jurassic Park III missed the mark.  It failed to connect with audiences, even the enthusiastic fans.  The question is: why?

Superficially, it should have worked.  It followed the formula of the other movies, the special effects were decent, and the cast was talented.  But I can explain where Jurassic Park III worked and where it didn't, and I'll share how I would have rewritten it to avoid some of the inherent problems.  Those are the exercises that I've found most helpful for improving my own writing.

It case it's not already clear, there will be spoilers in this post.

There are actually a lot of good elements in the movie.  Setting up a repeat of the "rich guy bribes Dr. Grant to come to the dinosaur park" element and then twisting it when Grant discovers that the Kirbys aren't actually rich was a good idea.  There was a good mix of humour with the danger, which gives the audience relief from the thrills and usually make them eager for more.  The displays of raptor intelligence, using a trap to lure in the humans and sophisticated communication, were awesome.  The pterosaurs and Spinosaurus were something new for the audience to be afraid of.  And, as a parent who as watched way too much Elmo's World, I will admit to a little schadenfreudish satisfaction watching the actor who plays Mr. Noodle get killed and eaten.

In my opinion, one of the biggest problems with the structure of the story is that there are very few tension builds.  In order for an audience to connect with a story, they have to be engaged with it.  They have to care about the characters and they need to understand the stakes and dangers so that they're worried when the characters are in jeopardy.

In Jurassic Park III, the audience is rarely given a chance to understand the dangers.  The writers didn't tell the audience that the grad student, Billy, had stolen raptor eggs, thus provoking the raptors to track the group.  We're never really shown what the spinosaurus's capabilities are, so we have no way to judge when the group is in danger from it.  The clearest example of this is when the Spino breaks through the fence.  We had no idea it was possible, so the moment is basically a jump scare rather than a tension build.  Ten seconds later, the group is behind another barrier and safe, so the audience doesn't feel any lingering effects from what should have been a major moment.

That's something that a lot of writers have problems with.  We, as authors, know everything that's happening and sometimes we forget to let our audience know the details they need to share in our excitement.  This is where beta readers and test audiences are crucial.  They don't know anything about the story and thus can point out when an author's vision hasn't quite made it into the current draft.

Another challenge is giving the audience enough time to make an emotional connection with what's happening on the page or on screen.  If things happen too quickly, they don't have an impact.  In movies, the time is built into what's on screen and for how long.  In a book, the author needs to recreate the subjective experience of time.  Time seems to slow down when an experience is intense, so an event that only takes a few seconds can last for several paragraphs or several pages.  The focus shifts from the narrative to the emotional.

This is why Jurassic Park III doesn't resonate the way Jurassic Park or Jurassic World does.  The dangers are rushed into and over too quickly.  The audience doesn't know what the stakes are.  Too many things are treated as surprise twists, but the twists rarely have any consequences past the immediate moment.  Those are all lessons that writers can learn from.  Figure out what the big moments are in your story and make sure that the audience clearly understands why they're important and that they have important consequences afterward.  Don't be afraid to take your time with them.

Now the fun part (or at least, the fun part for me).  Rewriting the story to make it better.

First things first, I would have had Ellie be with Dr. Grant as opposed to being married to someone else.  (This isn't a structural plot issue, but I shipped them in the first movie and since I'm writing it, I can do that.)  I also would have gotten rid of the Kirby's divorce and reconciliation subplot.  It didn't really add anything to the story.  They could have been married and arguing about the best way to parent their son and the story still would have worked.

The movie opens with the son (Eric) and the mom's boyfriend doing a Dino-Soar parasailing tour.  The boat is attacked behind fog and crashes, sending the two into Isla Sorna.  This is the inciting incident.

I would have opened with a similar scene, but with a few crucial changes.  I would have had the mom there with the son.  She's taking him on an "adventure" that his dad wouldn't approve of while they're on a family vacation.  Paint the dad as a rule-following fuddy-duddy and the mom as the freewheeling fun parent.  The tour guide mentions that they have to be careful because of an elevated U.S. military presence in Costa Rican waters (this is to set up the rescue at the end).  The kid is sent up on the parasail and is having a great time... until the pterosaurs come out.

The pterosaurs attack the sail and end up snapping the line holding the kid to the boat.  He goes flying toward the island.  The mom frantically tries to get the tour guide to follow but he refuses.  End the scene with the mom screaming and fighting to get to her kid.

This is a very relatable situation which instantly raises stakes for the audience.  We know the kid is alone on the island, which is full of dangerous dinosaurs.

Next scene, the mom and dad are together on the resort.  They're blaming each other (Dad: he never should have been anywhere near that island, Mom: It's not important now, we just have to find him.)  During the argument, mention that the family runs a plumbing supply chain, profitable but not stratospherically rich.  Mom has approached some mercenaries that the tour guide knows and suggested, but they won't go without a dinosaur expert.  Cue a poster about Dr. Alan Grant's scheduled lecture.

This set-up allows the audience to know that the Kirbys are fooling Dr. Grant, but it also compresses the timeline.  In the original movie, the kid is on his own on the island for 8 weeks, which they did to make it plausible that the kid learns to navigate the island, but also decreases the stakes.  (This was also another lost opportunity to build tension, where the parents expect to find their child dead, but I don't like dead kid stories so I'd make it a race against the clock instead.)

The scene where the Kirbys lie to Grant and claim to want him to serve as their guide for an island overflight could continue pretty much as is.  I would have Dr. Grant arguing with Ellie.  He wants to accept the deal because they haven't been able to get funding for their digs.  She tells him that he's crazy for even thinking of going back there and refuses to go.  He decides to go anyway, setting up a nice wedge between them which makes it questionable whether or not she'll take his call later on in the movie.

Now we've got a good batch of interpersonal tension going, plus the audience knows what the stakes are.

The rest of the movie only needs a few tweaks.  I would make the raptors and the pterosaurs the main threats and forget the spinosaurus.  Or, if necessary to include the Spino, make it a secondary threat (much like they did with the aquatic mosasoar in Jurassic World).  Have Grant explain what these animals can and can't do so that we know what the stakes are.  Spend more time building the tension in the big impact scenes.  I'd keep Billy (Grant's grad student) stealing the eggs and later sacrificing himself to save the kid, but make sure the audience is following along with it.

The difference between a story that works and one that doesn't is often pretty subtle.  That's why analyzing stories that don't work can be a great tool to make sure your own stories shine.

(And now my shameless self-promo moment, if you like the way I would have told this story, you'd probably like the books I wrote!)

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Thursday, 15 October 2020

Update on Audiobook Progress

The short answer to "How is the audiobook coming?" is "It's not."

I've run into some unexpected technical challenges: namely getting the volume levels right.  I've tried three different microphones and yet the audio is consistently below the volume required by Audible.  I.e., it's too quiet.

Since shouting isn't exactly how I pictured my romance novel, that's not working for me.

My son's gaming headset worked once but then I couldn't get it to work again.  I recorded two chapters and sent them to my beta listeners.  Two of them liked it and one didn't.

I'm torn about how far to pursue this.  I liked the idea of reading my own book, if for no other reason than I know how everything is pronounced.  But it just might not be a feasible option.

Yet I find myself shaking my head as I remember that hundreds of people are recording podcasts from home and aren't running into these problems.  I feel like there must be some setting that I have wrong which is causing the problem, but I can't figure out what it is.  I've tried checking every microphone setting I can find on my laptop and all of them are set to maximum reception.

I am baffled.

I still want to get my books out in audiobook, so maybe I need to see if I can find a narrator who is willing to work for royalties.

I'm not giving up, but I'm not quite sure how to proceed.

Previous blogpost: Part One of Reclaiming My HEA

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Thursday, 8 October 2020

Reclaiming My HEA: Part One

 Reclaiming My HEA is a monthly feature where I share my ongoing process as I go through my separation and divorce.

Last month, I told you all about an exercise that my therapist set me: picking a celebrity and writing my own happily ever after.  The idea is to break myself out of a pattern of not looking for affection and of not trusting other people.  Before I can find happiness, I need to believe it's possible.  We can't create what we can't imagine and while I can imagine love and happiness for superheroes, robots, and magical creatures, I find it hard to imagine it for myself.

My first step was to choose my celebrity.  I was toying with Brendan Fraser, Brandon Routh or Keanu Reeves, and I was having a hard time choosing.  Luckily, my subconscious had everything in hand.  I had a dream where I was playing a table top RPG with my friends from high school (yes, I am a complete nerd even in my dreams), but there was an addition to our usual group: Brandon Routh.  In the dream, this was a completely unremarkable fact and we were all having a good time laughing and playing our characters.  When the game was done, Brandon and I were tidying up and, as a joke, he asked me to dance.

We started swaying back and forth to a Taylor Swift song.  It was a really nice feeling, being held and guided to the music.  I seized a moment of bravery and asked him to go out with me.

Unfortunately, his reply was to apologize and say that he wasn't interested in being more than friends.  (This illustrates why this exercise is necessary.  What happens in dreams reflects a person's deepest held beliefs and expectations.)  I woke up shortly thereafter, feeling both disappointed and strangely encouraged.  I decided to go ahead with Brandon for my exercise.

I started with something small:

    "Ready?"  His tenor voice made me smile, even from the other room.  Brandon appeared from the kitchen with a big bowl of popcorn.

    "You're sure you're okay with just watching TV tonight?" I asked.  It was still hard to believe that someone I'd seen on the television would be joining me to watch The Princess Bride.

    "Absolutely."  His smile was infectious.  "I love this movie."

    He settled onto the couch, patting the seat beside him.  I maneuvered around the popcorn bowl and joined him, unsure what to do with my hands.  Should I sit with legs crossed or uncrossed?  Would he expect me to lean into him or would that annoy him?

    "Relax," he whispered, his lips brushing against my ear.  "There's no wrong answer.  I just want to spend time with you."

     His arm stole across my shoulders, drawing me into his side.  My head leaned to the side to rest against his shoulder.  For the first time in a long time, I felt safe.  His warmth seeped through the thin layers of fabric separating us, a tangible reminder that neither of us was alone anymore.

So there you have it, my first foray into imagining a happily ever after for myself.  Not for a kickass heroine with superpowers or an intergalatic starship engineer or for any of the other characters who live in my head.  Just for me.

Previous Reclaiming My HEA: Choose Your Hottie

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Thursday, 1 October 2020

Finishing the Character Arc: Vincent

Vincent Harris has appeared in every lalassu novel before getting his own story in Division.  He's gone through big changes since he first appeared on the page.  He's been a long time favourite of mine and I'm proud of his character arc.

He started off as the annoying little brother of my Revelations heroine, Dani.  He was a Peter Pan type who was always ready for the next party and never took anything seriously.  His big brother, Eric, dragged him along to a job interview for a professional bodyguard firm, trying to get him to take some responsibility.  Only it turned out to be a trap set by a multinational CEO looking for people with superpowers.  Eric and Vincent are taken captive and need to be rescued by their sister (and her newfound partner, a psychic child therapist).

Eric and Vincent have different reactions to being taken prisoner.  Eric struggles to resist the CEO's psychic powers of persuasion, but Vincent falls for it hard.  He's seduced by the temptation to have someone else take charge of his life, of not having to hide his abilities and being recognized as a powerful and admirable man.

When Metamorphosis starts, Vincent is deeply changed.  He's lost his confidence and is consumed by shame about what he did to his people and his family.  He's also been exiled to an isolated community in the far North, because his family are worried that his mind is still being controlled.

The experience has broken Vincent's joie-de-vivre, but he's still trying to escape from his fears by numbing himself and hiding from the rest of the world.

In Inquisition, he's starting to return to the world, but there's still a lot of trauma that he needs to process.  He's hiding his pain through sarcasm, pushing other people away.

But even though he's undeniably prickly, there's still a hint of the caring person underneath.  He's focused on protecting his family and helping others, even though he sees himself as an anti-hero at best and an untrustworthy villain at worst.

The hints of his return to a hero status begins in Judgment, when he helps the prisoners at Woodpine to overthrow the guards and escape.  This is the book where he initially meets Annika, but like so many great romances, she's not overly impressed with him at first and he's more focused on the task at hand than his feelings.

But the part of his story that I'm most proud of is recognizing his trauma and depression.  As someone who's suffered with my own mental health challenges, it was thrilling to give him a chance to do what is, in my opinion, the most courageous act of all: taking a chance on hope.  Falling in love doesn't cure him, because that's not how love works.  But it does give him a chance to see himself through fresh eyes and realize that maybe he's a better person than he's given himself credit for.

Through it all, he never loses his best quality: his sense of humour.  There are times when it's bitter and dark, and sometimes it's just off-the-wall.  Writing his dialogue has given me many moments of laughter and I'm glad to share them with everyone else.

And now the obligatory buy link, if you'd like to pick up your own copy of Division.

Previous blog post: The Problem with Problematic Creators

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Thursday, 24 September 2020

The Problem with Problematic Creators

One thing that a lot of people have been doing during this pandemic is going back and re-watching and re-reading old favourites.  And many of us are discovering that those old favourites have not aged particularly well.

It is astounding to present-me to see how many of the shows I used to watch relied on punchlines about cross-dressing or sexuality.  Not to mention the slurs and attacks on women's sexuality.  There were shows that I used to look forward to every week that are now unwatchable.  And that makes me sad and it makes me wonder how many toxic messages they installed in my subconscious.

Because that's what problematic content does.  It reinforces toxic messages that are already present in our society.  Those messages encourage us to devalue and dismiss marginalized people and their experiences.  They also incite fear and discomfort around targeted identities.

Sometimes that content is due to the creators being unaware of their own biases and societal influences.  And sometimes, it is hard to believe that content is anything other than deliberate.

I am, of course, talking about the latest release by J.K. Rowling.  Rowling has been very vocal against trans women, questioning their right to exist and live their lives as they wish.  She has equated them with predators and claimed that recognizing trans rights somehow erase or eliminate women's rights.  Then, in her new book, she's made the villain a cis man who dresses as a woman in order to stalk and kill other women.

As was noted in Disclosure (a Netflix documentary that I strongly encourage people to watch), a cross-dressing serial killer/predator was one of the more common tropes for a very long time in books and films.  Even though, in real life, trans people are far more likely to be the victims of assault and attack rather than the perpetrators, there was a recurring message that they were somehow inherently dangerous.

I think there can be little doubt that Rowling has deliberately created this character and plot as a reinforcement of her own beliefs.  Those beliefs have already caused a great deal of questioning and hurt among fans of the Harry Potter series.  It can be difficult to reconcile one's own experience of a fictional world as a much needed escape.  I spoke in last week's post about how fans become deeply attached to their fandoms, investing pieces of themselves in these fictional worlds and making them real.  Having to repudiate those stories can feel like having to cut off a piece of themselves.

I went through this myself with another author.  As a child, Ender's Game held a special place.  It was the only book that spoke to a reality I was struggling with: that adults could deliberately lie to children and place them in painful situations.  In almost every other YA story that I was reading, the adults were absent, ignorant, or secretly supportive.  Often the misunderstandings and hard feelings between the main characters and their caregivers/guardians/parents could be resolved by both parties being honest about their feelings.

In Ender's Game, the adults are lying to the children in order to manipulate them into fighting a war.  They push the children beyond the point of endurance and eventually make them complicit in genocide.  The adults are doing this knowingly and in full understanding of the trauma they are inflicting.  In their minds, the ends justify the means.  Those with power chose to harm those without it and to pretend they were merely helping.

That meant a great deal to me when I read it.  And yet, I will not share this book with my children or recommend that anyone else read it because its author is actively encouraging harm against the LGBTQ+ community.  There are deliberately harmful messages about homosexuals in that book and many others written by him.

I've had many people argue with me about where I draw the line.  They point out other authors with problematic content, like Mark Twain or Tolkien.  They encouraged me to use "death of the author" textual analysis or to embrace the elements I found meaningful and discard the ones I found unacceptable.  They've argued that authors' works shouldn't be censored due to their personal opinions.

To which I reply: they have missed the point entirely.

Rowling and OSC are still alive (unlike Twain and Tolkien).  They are not merely repeating contemporary prejudices but are actively seeking to alter the current world.  "Death of the author" is an academic exercise for interpreting a text, not a build-your-own buffet of selective embrace.  And as both Rowling and OSC are making a comfortable living off their intellectual properties, any interpretation of criticism as censorship falls short of a reality check.

There are harmful messages all around us.  We're bombarded with them and the only way to change that is to maintain constant vigilance and awareness.  It's difficult enough to do when dealing with creators who are mindful and actively trying not to commit harm.  When a creator insists on repeatedly pushing a toxic trope or idea, then I as a consumer of media am required to make a choice as to whether or not I wish to implicitly endorse this toxicity and risk reinforcing it in my subconscious by consuming those creations.

It's not possible to entirely separate the art from the artist.  Because art is a reflection of its creator and the way they see the world.  And that view shapes how fans of that art see the world as well.

And I'd rather see a world where people are respected and included.

Previous blogpost: The Trouble with Fan-Fic (The Mandalorian)

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Thursday, 17 September 2020

The Trouble With Fan-Fic (The Mandalorian)

 I promise this blog post is not a secret cry for help in the grand style of posting something you'd never say in order to signal that you need rescue.

I love fan fiction.  It's where I started writing and it's still my comfort go-to place when I need to recapture the fun and creativity of storytelling.  I wouldn't have gotten through my depression in the last six months without fan fiction, both reading and writing.

That doesn't mean there aren't problems.  Or rather one specific problem.

At the end of October, Season 2 of The Mandalorian will be released on Disney Plus.  Those who know me know that I adored that series.  As in "I will not shut up about it", "I have a major crush on Pablo Pascal" and "relentless search for the action figures" levels of adoration.

So, not a big surprise that the 8 episodes of Season 1 weren't enough for me.  I started doing little vignettes and scenelets almost as soon as the credits on Chapter 8: Redemption rolled.  (For the curious, I decided the story needed a romance and that a Force-sensitive Kaylee-type character (from Firefly) would be the perfect match for Din and the Child.)  But I kept it light because I'd already learned a major downside of writing fan-fic while a series is ongoing: it makes it harder to appreciate the new official material.

In ordinary times, I would be jumping up and down levels of excitement at the prospect of Season 2.  But instead I find myself hesitant.  I ended up delving deep into my own version of The Mandalorian universe because that was the only thing I ended up being able to write while I was trying to cope with the pandemic, my family, and my own mental health.  

I've got about 80k worth of a story full of adventure and romance.  I feel like I know that universe's characters as thoroughly as my own.  I have a backstory for Din, a rivalry with other members of the Order, and a slightly less than canonical view of whether the Mandalorian's vows are to never remove the helmet or to never let another living being see his face.  I made the enclave on Navarro just one of several Mandalorian sanctuaries.  I explored what the Mandalorians do with the foundlings they rescue and created my own society of masked space pirates.

So, yeah, safe to say that I invested a lot of imagination and thought into it.

But now I'm faced with knowing that the official writers will almost certainly not have created a version of the story that matches with what I wrote.  Which means mentally sundering one or the other from what I consider to be the "real" story.  (This has happened to me before.  I had some fantastic ideas for Fringe, and as a result, I don't acknowledge Season 5 in my own personal canon.  Ditto X-Men 3, which contradicted my two X-men fan-fic novels which were written after X-2.)

In the great scheme of things, it's not a huge problem.  In fact, it's a very privileged problem to have.  Oh, poor me, too many great stories.

At the same time, it's an illustration of how connected fans can become with worlds that other people have created.  Fandoms are more than just a place where people who all like a particular show, book, or movie can gather.  Those stories become real to us in a way that can be hard to explain to someone who hasn't experienced.  We integrate parts of ourselves into those universes, sometimes directly by creating characters who are stand-ins for ourselves, and sometimes by creating our own pieces of the stories.  By claiming a place for ourselves, we become a part of those universes.

Imagination and stories have always been a vital part of the human experience.  And I suspect that making ourselves part of those stories has been a part of the process from the beginning.  It's how we make sense of the world, by telling stories about our experiences and how we wish the world would be.

In my case, that's in a world with a sexy single dad bounty hunter, but your world might be different.

Previous post: Reclaiming My HEA: Choose Your Hotties

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Thursday, 10 September 2020

Reclaiming My HEA: Pick Your Hotties

 Reclaiming My HEA is a regular monthly feature on this blog, sharing my experiences as I go through the process of a divorce after twenty years of marriage and adjust to being single again in my forties.

It's been awhile since I wrote about this and I've been through a lot.  As many of you may know, due to the circumstances with our children, my ex-husband and I decided to continue to share our family home so that our kids could continue to have access to both of us.  It's been a difficult decision (though I'm still convinced it was the right one) and doing it during a pandemic has been especially challenging. (I speak about the challenges of sharing a house with my ex in the previous Reclaiming My HEA.)

One thing that has been helpful is working with a therapist to deal with the internalized messages that are stuck in my head.  It's hard for me to believe that others might find me attractive, and since I've been having to deal with just about everything at home on my own, asking for help isn't something that occurs to me.

My therapist had a good idea.  Since I am a romance writer, she suggested I try to change my internal messaging by writing little scenes that feature my own happily-ever-after.  She suggested I pick a celebrity as my hero and imagine a future where I don't have to worry about money and have a devoted and caring partner.

Imagine a hot guy hanging around my house?  Yeah, I can do that.

As I considered my options, I thought that it might be fun to share some snippets on this blog.

First step, I'll have to pick my celebrity.  This is a little odd for me.  I'm used to crushing on characters, not the people who play them.  With the character, I'm not stuck with any less than awesome real life traits and I can ignore any real-world spouses or families with a clear conscience.

(And for the record, this is meant to be inspiration and entertainment, with zero intention of making any person feel awkward or imposed on, especially the chosen celebrity or their families and friends.  If this does happen to cross anyone's screen, I hope they'll understand that I am using their likeness as a shorthand for the kind of person I am hoping to one day find love with, not a declaration of hoping for them specifically.)

That said, here are the gentlemen I'm considering.  Votes and opinions welcome!

Brendan Fraser.  He was the go-to hot and nice guy in the late nineties and early 2000s.  I absolutely developed a crush on his character in The Mummy and The Mummy Returns.  And I'm probably one of the few people who absolutely loved Bedazzled.  He's a fellow Canadian and I can't recall ever hearing anyone say something bad about working with him.  I could see him as an enthusiastic, energetic guy, the sort who is always up to try something new.

Brandon Routh.  He is my all time favourite Superman, and I adore his Ray Palmer in DC's Legends of Tomorrow.  I have heard that he is a fellow geek and RPG player, which would be awesome.  In my imagination, I would assume that he shares his character's love of musicals.  Again, he's one of those actors whom everyone seems to love working with.

Keanu Reeves.  I can't think of a single Reeves role that I didn't love: Matrix, Speed, Constantine, John Wick, To The Bone, even Bill and Ted.  He is notoriously sweet and kind, to the point that Romancelandia has adopted him wholeheartedly.  I like to think of him as a curl up together in front of a fire, each with a book kind of guy.

Tempted though I am, reverse-harem is not an option for this particular exercise (I checked).

Any of these gentlemen would be a worthy romantic hero (or at least the versions of them that I'm imagining), so, readers, what do you think?

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