Accidentally on purpose

Back in April, a friend and I gave a presentation about the latest installment of the Devil May Cry series. We noted that the themes of the game and the language of the ads for it were all about confronting power structures and challenging societal norms, but the main characters were pretty stereotypical: a rough-and-ready male hero and a helpless, innocent damsel-in-distress. We presented this as something of a failure on the part of the creators, but one of the audience members said he was quite sure this had been done intentionally as part of the social commentary.

I had not considered this. I started to feel insecure about my own interpretation. Was I just too dumb to get the joke? However, the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that he was right. It seems a little silly to be talking about definitive rights and wrongs when it comes to individual interpretations, but I felt that my friend and I had some pretty logical reasons for thinking DMC’s characters were the products of laziness rather than cleverness. There was no cage match to decide who was right, but it still got me thinking about how to judge the flaws of various media. At what point can you look at such flaws and say, “Well, they’ve done it on purpose to be clever”? That’s not something I feel comfortable assuming.

Of course, there are times it’s obvious. I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes over the semester, and even I could see that Anita Loos was using misspellings and a rather atypical form of stream of consciousness to create a gently mocking tone. But what about when it’s not obvious? I suppose I could just say we can all have our own ideas so hooray, let’s move on, but that’s not satisfying. Frankly, it doesn’t even come down to whether I like or dislike the book, game, or movie in question; I loved the DMC reboot and Dante as a character, but I still thought the game failed to depart from the norms it was railing against.

I’m not looking for a magic formula, here. Critiquing media should always be nearly as difficult and unique as creating media, I think, so I’m really just interested in reading other people’s experiences with this. What things have you read, watched, or played that used its own flaws as part of its narrative? What about that particular thing (or things) made you think the mistakes were an intentional part of the commentary rather than being just, well, mistakes?

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Literature of war

I’m not going to bore anybody with excuses here. I just didn’t feel like writing blog posts while I was writing papers my final two semesters of college, but now I’ve graduated and I’m unemployed, so I have lots of time! I’m going to set a modest goal of one post every two weeks (since I do hope to be employed sooner rather than later), but that means the content will be more worthwhile and less rambling!  Onward!

So, even though I was not making time for blog posts this past year, I was learning some pretty cool stuff. I had an English minor, so this last semester was packed full of English courses and the lone math class I put off as long as possible. The math class was not cool, but one of the English classes was Soldiers, Trauma, and Identity in American Literature, and it was fascinating. I’m really interested in writing about war and masculinity, and even though my take on those subjects tends toward sci-fi or fantasy rather than realism, it was an excellent introduction to the war literature tradition. Of course, the reading was intense; there’s really no comic relief in stories about people (or entire cultures) who have been irrevocably damaged by war, but it was worthwhile, powerful stuff. The literature was complemented by some theory pieces, and I certainly would never be so brazen as to think I’m now perfectly equipped to write soldiers or veterans, it gave me a good idea of what I’d be taking on if I were to pursue that subject seriously.

We read eight books over the course of the semester, but my favorites were Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, and Phantom Noise by Brian Turner. Every book we read for the course was important in its own right, but these were the ones I found really compelling. Billy Lynn is good in a way you can’t miss; it kind of slaps you in the face with its brilliance. Ceremony is just as good but really difficult and complex, and, as a book of poetry, Phantom Noise is no easy read but it is marvelous.

How about you? Have you ever taken a class or read a book (or group of books) that dealt with war? What about other difficult subjects?

warlit

Excerpt: Prodigal

Update 11:03 a.m.: I added a bit more to this so it leaves off somewhere a little more interesting and less ambiguous.

 

I’d been watching the guy all night. I told myself it was the gravitational pull of his enormous mass that kept sucking my eyeballs in that direction, but I was actually wondering if this would be the one to get me killed. If he killed me I wouldn’t have too much to be ashamed about; he looked like what you might get if you threw a Navy Seal and a rhinoceros in a soft serve machine and hit “Twist.”

My phone buzzed violently against the lacquered wood surface of the bar, startling me. I snatched it up, saw it was an unknown number with a hell of a lot of threes, and jabbed the “Ignore” button. I stuffed the phone into my tiny excuse of a pocket—I’d quickly figured out why girls were always complaining about their jeans’ lack of carrying capacity—and watched my gargantuan target a little more surreptitiously.

He was at least six and a half feet, maybe a little more, and all veiny, thick-cut muscle topped by a bald head. I couldn’t see the color of his eyes but I figured they were gray—steely gray, of course—and he had a cinderblock for a chin. I could see two faint scars running from his nose to his ear. Probably from that mutant, two-headed grizzly he wrestled during his time at the School for Tyrannosaurus Tanks. If that mutant grizzly didn’t even make it out, what chance did I have? I wasn’t really a small guy, but I might as well have been an anorexic schoolgirl compared to the elephant-on-steroids sitting a few stools down from me.

I wondered how tall his dad was. I imagined him just a little shorter, still big, but the blood-swollen muscle would have started to wrinkle and sag and the built-out abs would be more like a paunch. Or maybe he was really short and all his son’s height was courtesy of his wife’s side. That’d be a kicker, wouldn’t it? He’d had to put up with the ribbing with his wife’s taller brothers since he married her, and then his own son was taller than him by the time he was twelve. Either way, he would still have to look up when he looked at his son, and either way, he’d hate it.

Steroid Stan held up two bratwurst-fingers at the bartender. “Two beers,” he said in a voice that made Darth Vader sound like a mezzo-soprano. I choked on my shot and rum went searing up my nasal passages. The brunette next to me looked at me doubtfully and dangled a napkin in front of my face by the tips of her gold-lacquered nails.

“Thanks,” I gasped, shamelessly wiping my streaming eyes and nose. I glanced down the bar and saw Mount Muscle was about to walk away. It was now or never. I tugged my beanie tighter over my ears.

When I stumbled into him it felt like walking into a California redwood. He tensed up immediately, but when he turned and saw me I could almost read his brain processes. Very small male/girly V-neck/tight jeans/looks like he’s been crying/no threat detected/continuing scan.

I registered there was a girl on his arm. She was blond and tan, and her eyebrows had such an extreme, over-plucked arch that I wondered if she had taped them there. But the most interesting thing about her was that she couldn’t have been more than an inch over five feet even. It was too easy.

I looked down at her and then up at him incredulously. “Buddy,” I said. “Is your dick not proportional? Or are you trying to kill her?”

That got his attention. He swung his head around like a bull looking for the matador, the tendons of his neck bulging and his eyes narrowing as he tried to decide if I was insulting him. I purposely ignored him, turning instead to his girlfriend and summoning a smile so lascivious I might as well have just waved a red cape in his face.

“Sweetheart,” I said, trying not to stare at her eyebrows. “I don’t think you’re going to have a lot of fun with him tonight. Why don’t you come with me, we’ll find a place that isn’t a total shithole, and then we’ll have a good time, huh?”

Too. Easy.

It’s so good to be bad

What do all these people have in common?

They all range from mildly attractive to drop-dead gorgeous, depending on your tastes.

And they’re all villains. I love villains. Well-developed, interesting, complex villains, that is.

I know. I’m super original.

Everyone loves well-developed, interesting, complex characters regardless of their status as a hero, villain, or anti-hero. If we learned anything from Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it’s that villains are just as important (if not more important) to stories as heroes. In many cases, the villain could have been the hero at one point in his or her life; they had the same talent or power, but they were just a little more flawed. They’re just a little more human and a little less super. To me, a good villain is more real and/or relatable than a hero. I think we should give more villains their own stories.

I know of a few such stories. The first one that comes to mind is the manga and anime Death Note. If you don’t know anything about it, I’ll just repeat what everyone said to me before I watched it and tell you it’s a total mindfuck. I’ve only seen one episode of the immensely popular Breaking Bad, but everything I’ve seen, heard, and read tells me Walter White is a villain protagonist. I can’t exactly call Anna Karenina a villainess, but I certainly wouldn’t say she’s a heroine. I’m currently reading (or trying to read) Paradise Lost, and even though epic poetry isn’t my favorite thing ever, Milton’s Satan is incredibly likeable.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but look at the story potential even in that little selection of villains. Chris Hemsworth may be a gorgeous hunk of man, but I’d be way more interested in a movie strictly about Loki than I am in the Thor sequel. Queen Ravenna was a far more compelling character than Snow White in Snow White and the Huntsman, and yes, Charlize Theron is 10 times the actress Kristen Stewart is, but I think the difference was built into the characters. And I would pay SO MUCH THEORETICAL MONEY to see more of Hatsumomo’s story even if I loved Memoirs of a Geisha just the way it was.

Here is where I’d love to get some good, honest-to-God conversation going. Do you like stories whose main characters are a darker shade of gray? If so, how is it done successfully? Do all the characters have to be bad (a hero-less story) and the main character just has to be the most likeable, relatable baddie?

On that note, what do you think makes a villain likeable or relatable enough that readers or viewers can enjoy them or want to spend time with them despite their actions? Which character traits are inexcusable? What was the difference between villains you may have been rooting for just a teensy bit and villains you couldn’t wait to see go down in flames?

I’ve just now realized what’s wrong with Untitled P.O.S. Damn it.

Anyway, I’d like to hear from my readers! I know how I feel about villains, but whether you’re a writer, reader, runner, baker, or candlestick maker, I’d like to hear your opinion on the subject. Even if you don’t have a theory on the subject as a whole, I’m really interested to know who your favorite villain is and what makes them great.

I was on vacation in Spain! Not really.

I have been working on this blog post for weeks. WEEKS. I started some kind of “top 10 characters!” list four times. I tried to find a recently-written excerpt that didn’t make me cringe. There was enough failing going on that one might call it epic failing. I’ve never been a fast writer, but up until this, blog posts have only taken me between two and four hours to put together. I attribute that to a combination of my nit-pickiness and all those distractions I can’t resist, but this is different. If I change tense a few times in this post, it’s because I feel like this is still going on even as I type these very words rather than being a thing of the past.

This has not been a matter of hemming and hawing over my diction or an inability to stay away from Buzzfeed for longer than 30 seconds. It doesn’t even have to do with the fact that it’s been a perfect 70 degrees and sunny lately. This is the utter doldrums. I just have nothing to say.

I think it started when I had one of those paralytic, I-think-this-is-worthless-shit-why-am-I-even-bothering moments regarding Untitled P.O.S. I say “had” like it came and it went but it’s still going on. I should soldier through my doubt and just finish it (it’s only 20K words, for Pete’s sake), right?

Right?

I don’t know.

I’m not one of those people who believe a story is worth something just because someone put time, energy, and love into it. I’ve read plenty of things people have put their best efforts and purest intentions into that have also been complete crap. I’ve never handed anyone back a piece and said, “I think you should go into construction instead,” but I’ve thought it. Cruel? Yeah. But my best friend just sent me a text saying she saw a crow kill a little songbird and start eating it. It’s just a cruel world.

My point is, I don’t want to be taken in by my own fantasies of writing a great story. I don’t want to another person who pours their soul into a book just so a better writer or thinker can tear it to shreds. I’m not afraid of criticism, but I am afraid of writing something that is legitimately, utterly worthless. I’m not afraid to bleed a little in my writing, but it’s hard to make that commitment when you have the sneaking suspicion your characters and themes will do nothing but alienate readers. And even worse, I can’t tell if I’m being the world’s gloomiest, most cynical pessimist, or if I’m just showing good judgment for once.

People are always willing to rush to my defense (against myself) and say, “You’re a good writer! You’re too hard on yourself! You’re overly critical!” I appreciate the vote of confidence, but I already know I can string a sentence together more or less correctly. I can probably put a few of them together and make a paragraph. But that doesn’t mean I have a good story. A grammatically correct story doesn’t equal one worth telling.

I don’t say any of this to suggest anyone should adopt my mindset. It’s crippling and unproductive and generally no fun whatsoever. I say it as a preview to the following revelation and most excellent advice.

*dramatic pause* *slow-motion blink* *dawn breaks over the mountains*

Wait. I don’t have any.

I’m still in the damn doldrums, and beyond that, I’m still not sure whether to keep on this story or look for a new one. How do writers know when to rewrite and edit and rewrite some more and when to start fresh? When do you admit you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and start over with a simple hero or heroine? When do you abandon ship? Is the fact that I’m unsure if the story is worth writing a sign that it isn’t?

Well, anyway. That’s where I’m at. That’s where I’ve been for this long hiatus from the blog. I don’t plan on taking any more breaks in the near future (then again, I didn’t plan this one), but with school starting up again soon I’m thinking it’ll be one post a week. So if I don’t post anything by next Friday, somebody yell at me!

One last thing: I know this is a grumpy-sounding post that doesn’t contribute any positivity to the world. Here is an absurdly fluffy kitteh to clear the air.

Look at how happy and unburdened by bad storytelling she is!

IT’S LIKE SHE’S WEARING LITTLE FLUFFY PANTALOONS. OH LORD.

The return of the half-assed writer person

I’m baaaaaaack!

This is the longest I’ve been away from the blog since I started it. I don’t have any good reasons for my absence but I have some pretty bad excuses, e.g. “I can’t think of anything worthwhile to write about” or “I just don’t feel like it.”

That pretty much sums up my mood this past week. The things I’ve wanted to write, that have come bustling into my mind saying, “’Scuse me, I need to be written right now, immediately,” have not been blog posts or book chapters. I’ve piddled around with some personal things that I think are well-written but too personal to share, I’ve played with my horse (and other horses), I’ve gone running, and I’ve halfheartedly worked on the Untitled P.O.S. You may have noticed that I added a word count meter for said P.O.S. in the sidebar and that I’m quite behind schedule.

So yes, it has been slow, unproductive, uninspired going. If you believe that the only way to write is to sit down and write as much as you can every day, then I have failed quite miserably. However, I don’t feel like I’ve failed. My word count may not be rocketing up like the temperature has been lately, but I’ve learned quite a bit about myself as a writer.

Plotting: consider me converted

The first thing I’ve realized is that all my plotting has paid off. The plotting is the best thing past me ever did for present me. Without my outline this project would be dead in the water, because when I don’t feel like writing, I really don’t feel like writing on the fly. Nothing is more intimidating to unmotivated me than not knowing what’s going to happen next, let alone figuring out how to write it. It feels like I’m building a bridge as I’m trying to cross it. Or something. Whatever. Anyway, sitting down to an outline rather than a blank page gives me a sense of security and confidence, and I think that improves my writing.

If you put enough snowflakes on a roof, it caves in.

I use “even” way too much. I used “even if,” “even now,” and “even then” in the same paragraph. It seems like a small thing, but small things add up. I notice repetitive diction when I’m reading stuff other people wrote, so I’m glad I caught this one fairly early on. Hopefully it will keep me alert for other noticeably repetitive phrases that may crop up.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

I struggle with this. I aspire to this. How many words are enough? How many are too many? This paragraph is exposition; is that inherently bad? If I were a better writer, would I say this differently? It’s a nagging insecurity, but I think it’s kept me vigilant and aware of describing things to death. My slow writing pace this time around has allowed me to consider my words more carefully.

Put me in the mood, baby.

Another thing I’ve learned is just how super duper important my playlist of “mood music” is. I chose the songs to help me get in the frame of mind necessary to write my characters, and it has been invaluable when I’m begrudgingly sitting down to write. Some of them are “Adrian songs,” some of them are “Leila songs,” and some of them just capture the general overtones of the story. If you have any interest in listening, it’s over there in the sidebar.

 The puzzle is done, but I still have these pieces.

I’ve realized that I don’t have to put every single detail of back story in the book. I have probably thought out almost every single detail and I do think my characters’ lives leading up to the actual story are pretty interesting, but they’re not necessarily…necessary. The temptation is to shoe-horn them in because I’m so cool for thinking up intriguing back stories and I want everyone to know how cool I am. Because I am extremely cool.

Well, that’s that. For now, at least. I’m sure by the end of this project I’ll have learned lots more fun things about my writing and I will bless all of you by sharing all of them in my infinite writerly wisdom and coolness. Aren’t you excited?

For lack of a better title, [insert Latin phrase here]

Things I am good at: talking to cats, annoying my brother, discussing the finer points of Tom Hardy, remembering exact quotes.

Things I am bad at: being sensitive and empathetic, returning texts promptly, cooking, thinking of titles.

Today I’m going to talk about titles, because that’s what’s annoying me right this very second. As I’ve already mentioned, I’m working on a novella this month. I’ve posted an excerpt from it, and as of right now it’s labeled “Untitled P.O.S.” It is so called because I struggle with titles.

At this point in time, I shouldn’t be stressing over the title of this project. I should be fussing over actually writing the thing. While I am most certainly fussing over the writing, its lack of a name is nagging at me. If nothing else I’d like to have a working title; at least that way I could stop calling it “that piece of shit” because how is anyone supposed to differentiate it from the other untitled pieces of shit I’ve written?

This certainly isn’t the first time a title has been a significant distraction to me. Back when I was writing my failed NaNo project (notice that’s become an unofficial title) I called it Inferos. “Inferos” is a Latin word and, according to the ABSOLUTELY INFALLIBLE Google translator, it means “hell.” Before settling on that, I was scrawling title ideas on everything; napkins, sticky notes, other people’s foreheads, wherever. It drove me nuts to open a file named “something_something_Idunno_draft1.” When “inferos” popped up, I thought it fit. Heaven, hell, and lots of other religious themes were present (by “present” I mean “sledge-hammered in the reader’s face”) in the story, so the language and the meaning of the word seemed logical. I also liked the look and sound of the word, as I do many Latin words.

After “winning” NaNo, I had the fantastic opportunity in the form of a free consultation with The Book Doctors (Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry). I had already purchased and read a good portion of their book (I seriously can’t tell you how insanely helpful this is to an unpublished writer hoping to get published), so when it came time for my consultation I thought I had a pretty good handle on the situation. After we talked about my pitch, David kindly told me what I needed to hear: The title was bad. It wouldn’t tell the prospective buyer or reader anything unless they knew Latin, which practically nobody does. Even if they did, it was vague to say the least.

If you think that’s the end of Carly’s adventures in dead languages, think again. When I wrote the short story that spawned my current project, I called it Veritas without a moment’s hesitation. The idea of truth is a strong element, the main family motto is in Latin, and it was 5 a.m. so I didn’t even give a rat’s ass. However, I knew the title wasn’t there to stay. Once I started planning the novella, I mentally unnamed it.

And that brings us to now. I still don’t have a name for it.

Obviously I’m not going to die if I don’t think of a title right now immediately ten minutes ago. If I had really had my priorities straight I would let it go untitled until such time as I actually needed a title or one appeared from the story itself, but nothing I’ve written on this blog suggests I’ve got my priorities straight and I’m certainly not going to start now.

At this point, I’d like to ask something a little more specific than “Hey hey hey, whaddaya guys think about titles?” because we all know titles are important and blah blah, great stuff, Carly. I would like to ask my readers about the title of my book. Something like, “If you saw these three titles on the shelf, which would you choose and why?” I would also like to do a book giveaway.

Hint, hint.

The only problem is, I don’t know how to connect those two yet. Thankfully, I have a team of experts working on it (or something), so with any luck I’ll have some kind of a naming contest/giveaway going on in short order.

In the meantime, do feel free to share your thoughts on titles, fonts, colors, page numbers, dead languages, et all ad nauseam. See what I did there?

Now just give me fifteen minutes to think of a title for this post.