Thursday, 29 October 2020

Creating Stories With Music

Music is a big part of my writing process.  I have thousands of songs sorted into dozens of playlists for characters, moods, and universes.  Maybe it's the result of too many formative years spent watching movies and television, where the right emotions are always triggered through the background music, but it's how my brain works.  Sound creates fictional worlds faster than anything else for me.  

It is impressive how consistently music can affect our interpretation of what we see.  Stores use catchy music to encourage people to be cheerful and impulsive (thus more likely to buy things).  Cathedrals were built to amplify certain chords within their structure, creating experiences of awe and transcendence.  A switch in music can change a story from a hopeful musical into a horror film.  

My writing process often starts with a scene inspired by a song.  I imagine an emotionally powerful experience or connection.  With Revelations, it was Michael telling Dani that she is not a monster, inspired by the song True Colors.  I wanted to create a profound moment of being seen, all the bad parts and all the good parts.  Of having someone truly know and understand, making it impossible to dismiss their feelings of love.  In Division, the first moment was Vincent falling into a depressed fugue and realizing he has to pull himself out, inspired by Bring Me To Life.  He is desperate to find a way out of the trap of his own mind.  He's reaching out to anyone who might be able to save him, but still finds the strength to offer a hand to someone else who is equally trapped.

Knowing this, it's probably not a surprise that my book, Deadly Potential, features a songwriter who uses music to sort out her emotions and experiences, transforming them into notes and lyrics.  Delving into the music industry was incredibly fun, providing a peek into a world that I've always been curious about.  I read a lot of biographies, including Never Say No To A Rock Star and biographies of Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, and Madonna.  I learned that there are song factories, where people write dozens of songs each day, which are then bought by performers and managers.  There are people who can write a song in ten minutes and others who spend months crafting each chord.

A song can tell a story just as powerfully as a book.  It gives us the same opportunity to experience life from another person's point of view.  It's probably why music and stories are so intertwined.  As Hugh Grant explained in the movie, Music and Lyrics, nothing can make you feel happy as quickly as the right song.  Except maybe, the right story.

Previous blogpost: Fixing Jurassic Park III: Learning a Lesson from Bad Stories

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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!)

Previous blogpost: Update on Audiobook Progress

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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

Previous Blog post: Introducing Vincent

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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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