Monday, February 28, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

In a long line of superhero films that deconstruct and comment on superheroism comes Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. The protagonist is a supervillain. A geeky, sweet, kind of awkward supervillain named Billy, who has the same idea a lot of people do—that the world would be a better place if we were in charge. Billy lives in a world where superheroes and supervillains are common enough that people recognize their names on the street. His nemesis is Captain Hammer, whose muscles are only matched by the size of his ego. Hammer's a sadistic bully who uses his status as superhero to get away with some pretty horrible things, including stealing Billy's crush away from him. Of course, we only see him through Billy eyes, which are probably skewed, but still.

There've been other supervillain-as-protagonist stories, including Despicable Me and Megamind, and as far as I can tell, Soon I Will Be Invincible. I'll be talking about these later, but Dr. Horrible's the only one to cast the superhero as a bully. Antagonist and thorn in the side, sure, that goes for most stories, but a bully? A guy who gets his kicks from making other people hurt? I'd say "only Joss Whedon" but I'm not convinced his mind's that unique. (The ending's pure Whedon, though.) It's also interesting to note that civilian blindness to Hammer's actions can be read as a metaphor for civilian blindness to the actions of governments and corporations, who say one thing and do another all the time—or at least that's how I see it. Billy refers to Hammer as a "corporate tool", after all.

Enough about the hero. Let's talk villains! I've already mentioned a lot of what makes Billy particularly endearing. He's trying so hard to succeed, and he has a lot of false starts, and there's a girl he can't get the courage to talk to… Billy's speciality is ray guns and building things. I like all supervillains, but mad scientists are more fun for me than any of the superpowered villains I've met*. There's something about their drive and the way they think that speaks to me. Possibly this says things about my own personality, I don't know. Let's just say I really, really like Billy and move on…

There are superpowers in this world. Moist, Billy's henchmen/friend, makes things damp, but so quickly it can't just be sweat. We don't know how common powers are, because we only get glimpses of the Evil League of Evil and never see another superhero. We don't even know for sure if Hammer has powers. He could just be naturally strong. (I'm leaning towards powers, though.) Mad science, however, is totally possible.

Other bits of deconstruction: Billy knows he shouldn't monologue during the climax, but he can't help himself**. There's a superhero, Johnny Snow, who keeps asking Billy to be his nemesis. The henchmen have a union. Hammer has a fan club. There is singing. Singing. And it works. Nobody has a cape.

For me, Dr. Horrible ties with Firefly for Best Whedon Show. (Sorry Buffy and Angel. You're #2, promise.) There's evident delight in the world and the story, and a perfect balance of light and dark overtones, and it's really hard to decide between supervillains and space cowboys. I mean, how can you? So if you're reading this as a review rather than a commentary on the super-world, take note that I'm not unbiased.*** And if you haven't seen Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog yet, what's keeping you? Go watch it right now!

* Except for my supervillain, because he's mine. Mwahaha.
** I think there's a fairly long tradition of villains knowing not to do this, actually.
*** I've also seen the stage musical. Just sayin'.

Friday, February 25, 2011

I Live! (Maybe)

I’m back in the world of regular chances to be online now, though I have to start the dayjob in about half an hour (and am running on short sleep) so today’s post is going to be on the short side. Regular service will return on Monday, likely with some kind of superhero. I was listening to podcasts during my “holiday” at my parents and was reminded of a couple movies I’ve seen and forgotten about. I’m going to have to do a rewatch of them before blogging about those, though. It’s been too long to remember anything accurately, and I was too new to superheroes at the time to have picked up on a lot.

Anyway, I spent an hour this morning talking with Dad about the WIP. Dad being a smart guy who understands narrative flow and troubleshooting and the problems inherent in writing groups who shoot down manuscripts. We came up with several ideas for how to fix The WIP, one of which is going to be finicky and involve a lot of tweaking, one of which turns it from a novel into a novella*, and one of which mashes the planned plot of Book 2 into Book 1, which will be a lot of writing but might actually go quickly because I’m not dealing with the same material over and over and over and over and….

I don’t know which to choose. I’m likely going to try them all, to a point. There are beta-made cuts that I need to deal with before I have the book in a form I can use as a launch point. I need to write a new denouement. I need to give the antagonist more of a back story. I may need to write a new first chapter. There are some other issues. And I’m not saying this so you can give me your opinion, though if you want to, I won’t and can’t stop you. I just have to say this to somebody, and I figure the occasional WIP-blog is okay.

In other news, I think I may have come up with a good title for the WIP, instead of the mediocre, kind of vague one I have now, and I’m hauling a bunch of my books home so my parents don’t have to move them. They’re going to be handy writing resources, or they’d better be because I swear they weigh about six tonnes.

* I pointed out that novellas are a hard sell. He said try it anyway.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Short Update-y Post

I am woefully behind. Perhaps I exaggerate, but that's what it feels like. I owe someone story feedback. I've barely read or watched anything new for my Year of the Superhero series. There are over 70 books on my to-read shelves. There are some embarrassingly unanswered emails. I haven't done much revision this week. Aagh! If only there were more hours in a day. If only I could get by with little sleep on a regular basis.

All this to say that:

  1. If I owe you something, I'm sorry, and it should be arriving within the next few days.
  2. There are too many books in this world.
  3. The next couple days are going to put me further behind, as I'm going home to help my parents pack for a move. I will have internet connectivity, but who knows how much time I'll have to be online.
  4. Because Friday is my travel-back-to-City day, I don't know how intelligent or long my Friday post will be.
I'm going to make this an open post, in a sense. Anything you feel like saying (unless it's rude or spiteful), go ahead and say it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

UF as a Window into Society

Lately I've been reading a cultural history of the Great Depression*. I won't go into details, as they're likely to bore you, but the thesis of the book—the whole concept of cultural history, actually—has opened my eyes. See, cultural historians examine books, art, movies, songs, and other products of human culture, to get a sense of the era, or civilization, or subculture, or what-have-you, and it's been interesting to see how the songs I know, the movies I've heard of but haven't seen, the books, and the photos all express the same dynamics, the same attitudes, the same conflicts.

Can you guess where I'm going with this?

Okay, maybe not. I've been thinking, this last day or so: What can we learn about our culture, or what would future historians see, by examining urban fantasy?

Disclaimer: I am not a historian. I have not taken a single post-secondary history class. Nor am I an expert on urban fantasy. I am bound to miss things, and probably going to get things wrong. This is entirely my own opinion and observations. If you must yell at me over anything in this post, please do so nicely. I'm not intending to step on toes or anything. Etc. etc. etc.

Urban fantasy frequently features loners, love triangles, noir settings, monsters, law enforcement professionals, and strong women even with male main characters. The triangles, the noir, the monsters, the women (often with phallic symbols)—those're all about sex. The culture of the early 2000s likes sex. This shouldn't surprise anyone. But also:
  • loners and noir - The City isolates people, forms them into nations of one, cuts them off from others. We can't live without the City, but we can't really live with it, either.
  • noir - We live in dark, depressing times, folks. There's a lot of fear and worry out there. One thing I've learned from Dancing in the Dark is that noir sprang up as a reaction to the Great Depression, with a dash of 1920s disenchantment. Instead of focussing on the grittiness of the rural poor, some writers focussed on the grittiness of the city, looking at the downtrodden there. (For downtrodden, substitute monsters?)
  • monsters - These represent various human minorities—ethnicities, women, the poor, LGBT. We're a much more integrated, global, holistic society these days, and more aware of other cultures and subcultues. It makes sense that our fiction reflects that.
  • strong women - Women may not be completely equal with men in reality, but they're much more equal than they have been in eras past. They're allowed to be strong, independent leaders, among many other things. So why not put strong women in fiction? Especially when it's noir fiction, which (I get the impression) typically features strong, alpha males? However, the fact that so many of these women appear with phallic symbols in tow means that women are still trying for equality for men, in a way. You need … certain bits of anatomy to qualify for higher wages, in many places. To pick one of many possible examples.
  • love triangles - Let's set aside the romantic entanglement part of love triangles, since that's been a tried and true narrative device since mythology, and look at the other aspects of the geometry. Frequently it's women who choose the men, and there's often sexual tension, even sex, with both partners. Is this evidence of changing attitudes to romance and relationships? A celebration of femalehood and sexuality? Both? Neither?
  • law enforcement - It's possible this reflects the growing police-state nature of parts of the Western world. I think it's far more likely law enforcement tends to show up in UF a lot because detectives and bounty hunters and vigilantes tend to have easier access to mysteries than the rest of us. The noir mysteries also play a part, I'd imagine.
The fact that we're couching all this social commentary in terms of fantasy likely indicates that there's a desire to get away from the world while reading the stories, though because of the social commentary in the stories, we don't want to get too far. We like being grounded, but we also like fun.

The chicks-with-leather type of urban fantasy isn't the only kind out there, however. There's also the mythic fantasy vein, where there's a quest of some kind through our world and maybe through a form of Faerie as well, and the Hero's Journey is adhered too, and there's beauty and magic. I don't know much about what's new in mythic fantasy, or what the writers I know of are doing differently than they were before. I think there's more technology and technological fae creeping in, but that's simply realism. We're a more technological society. If the hero didn't have a cell phone and an internet connection, s/he wouldn't be believable.

I'd delve into details here, examining specific books or series, but I think it's too soon. Which books are going to stand the test of time and be known in 20 years? In 50? What are people going to remember once UF has faded as a genre? How representative of society are individual books or series, anyway? How can I be sure enough of you have read the books I have? And do I have the right to get into that level of detail and examination when, as I've noted, I don't actually have any history credentials?

I'll leave the detail work for coming generations, then, and throw this idea of cultural history out to you, readers, as food for thought. Have I missed anything? Are there other interpretations? Anything you want to add?

* It's research, okay?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Real-Time Translation and Talking Dolphins

It's obviously been a while since I've done anything with my archive of interesting science links. I know this because the first link on the list today dates from October. October! A quarter of a year away! But my list is finally long enough for a decent-length post, so here goes.

It is now possible to transmitting sound through space. Conventional wisdom says sound can't move through a vacuum because sound needs to be carried through air (or something else that vibrates). This holds for the breakthrough, actually. They're not using sound waves, exactly. They're getting the sound to vibrates a piezoelectric crystal, which sends out an electrical signal, which hits another crystal, which turns the electricity back into sound. Electricity can travel through a vacuum, you see.

This reminds me of the interplanetary internet idea that was floating around a few years ago—fast, almost real-time information transfer via relay stations set up throughout the solar system. We could conceivably do something similar with these crystals, set up a satellite phone between us and Jupiter or enable space stations or spaceships to talk to each other. Or, if we start looking for electrical signals coming from space, maybe we'll finally make contact with aliens! Of course, I don't know enough space science or electro-physics to say if interstellar dust or asteroids or solar flares will change the quality of the signal, but it's certainly a cool thought, no?

Getting a little gory for a second, researchers at McMaster University* have found a way to turn skin into blood. You stick skin cells into a chemical bath and voilĂ ! Well, I imagine it's quite a bit more complicated than that, but still…. Once it's perfected a little better, this may be a way to get around the pesky stem cell debates, and if the blood is compatible with humans (unknown at date of original link), it might simplify blood transfusions. We wouldn't need as many donors to give blood, if they were willing to donate a bit of skin instead.

And back to our irregular broadcast: We have a universal translator! It's not without flaws, because it relies on 1) people being able to speak clearly and 2) Google Translate correctly identifying the words they're saying, but! Universal translator! The ability to go to any country I want, without speaking the language, and be understood! No phrasebooks!** There's also an iPhone app that translates Spanish-English texts in real time! Is that not awesome?

A while ago, the internet was buzzing about apparent evidence for precognition. A psychologist had run tests that seemed to prove that if you primed people on words after testing them on words, they'd still do better on the words you primed them on. It's compelling evidence and I'm half-inclined to believe it without further study, but it's only one researcher, after all. Let's see this replicated! Author Peter Watts has a fantastic analysis of the whole thing, and the controversy, and since he's got a science background, I direct you there.

Finally (and this one's new), we've come up with a rudimentary dolphin-human language! A series of whistles that humans can make, and dolphins can make, that code to various pool-side objects (ball, baton, fish, person…). Dolphins are actually using it to talk to us! I'd really like to see this developed to the point where it is a real language, or at least a functional pidgin, with verbs and determiners and adjectives and the whole deal. Think of what dolphins could teach us! Think of what we could learn about their minds, their culture, their own language! I've enjoyed the idea of talking dolphins in science fiction, but usually they've been altered to have human voice boxes/vocal tracts or they've got some kind of machine that translates thoughts.*** I'm surprised the idea of creating a hybrid language hasn't come up before. (I'm also starting to wonder if this new language will reveal that dolphins actually are from another planet. But I'm not holding out hope.)

Any cool science you've seen lately?

* Canada represent!
** I'd probably still buy one.
*** Actually, I'm not sure of this last one, but I swear I've seen it somewhere that isn't Up!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Reason #352 Why I'm a Writer

I love language. I love the way words sound and how the sounds differ between accents. I love how the same word can mean five different things depending on which century it's used in, and how it can mean five other things depending on modern-day context. I love how languages borrow from each other, how sounds and meanings change during the borrowing. I love how there are more than enough languages in the world to cover every possible permutation of syntax and meaning and structure. I love the arcane system that is punctuation.

See also: the linguistics degree; my collection of dictionaries, English, translation, foreign-language, etymological, and obsolete; the fact that receiving the Chicago Manual of Style for my birthday several years ago had me actually jumping up and down and squealing; the biology grades which were half-memorization, half-figuring-out-the-Greek-and-Latin-affixes; the fact that I drop words like "truncate" and "collude" and "indefatigably" in everyday conversations and think nothing of it.

This is all to say that playing with language is what I do. I'm a natural punster. I make up words. I make up concepts. I make up sentences and paragraphs and stories. It's fun. It's addictive. Especially the bit about the stories, and especially when something I say or write causes spit takes or brain breakage. I delight in linking concepts that you wouldn't think could be linked, like the simile I came up with yesterday: The dust swirled up behind him like a cartoon coyote chasing a roadrunner. Sadly, it didn't fit the scene and the the coyote himself never swirls, but it's a great image, isn't it?

There's something magical about being able to take words, single words with only an handful of meanings, and stringing them together into a phrase or a sentence that pops, and then taking those sentences and forming paragraphs with a rhythm and flow and a sense of person, and then taking those paragraphs and creating the spell that is Story. There are approximately 48 sounds in the English language, represented by 26 letters of an alphabet that's been passed down and adapted for 4000 years, and using them, I'm able to elicit emotions and conjure images and tell the stories of people who may or may not exist. Anything I can imagine, is possible, and anything I want to say, I can.

And that is why I am a writer. How could I not be?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Heroes

I haven't watched all of Heroes. Let's get that out of the way right now. I've seen the first season, about 80% of the second, and the first half (or so) of the third. I stopped watching because the story grew too complicated and because my favourite characters were being written out of character. It ceased to be worth my time. (I chose to write instead.) I've seen enough of the show to talk about it, just not the whole run.

I enjoyed Heroes, especially the first season. I loved the way it was laid out like a comic book, with all the interconnecting threads and stories. I liked the X-Men-like nature of the show, with people freaking out over their powers and using them opportunistically, with the powers being somehow genetic, with everyone banding together by the end to stop a nuclear explosion. I liked the moral greyness and the sense of this being our world, with our problems, and the characters being real people. The writers did a great job of integrating superpowers into this universe. I can almost believe the Heroes world is our own.

A large part of what made the first season for me was how every member of the ensemble (or the powered members, anyway) was going through a different version of an origin story, including several characters who came into their powers already aware of comic books and fandom at large. I liked that a number of them weren't in it for the superheroism and the saving of the world, but were petty and selfish and occasionally confused. See: realism, greyness.

The show started delving into more of the world, and more politics, in later seasons. We find out more about the previous generation of 'heroes' and the Company they founded to protect/hide people with powers. We find out about a virus that can give people powers and how a strain of the virus could cause a pandemic. We meet some of the more psychopathic and dangerous people the Company's captured as everyone trying to a) escape from them or b) recapture them. Several of the characters begin to go dark or grey. One of them does so while desperately trying to find a way to induce powers in normal humans. It's compelling stuff, good television, all of that—for the most part.

Like any fan, I have my quibbles, my opinions on how the show should've gone, what the characters should've done and changed into. I had problems with the fact that time travel, in the form of geeky Hiro and tortured Peter, was used to further the plot, to give hints and threats and clues, in the later seasons as it was in the first. One season, it's cool. Two seasons or more, it feels like the writers have a formula. I feel cheated. The same goes for the "save the world" plot lines, which, while cool, was done in season two as well. And then season three almost went soap opera in a few of the story lines and had characters who seemed to be there more for "aww, that's sweet" moments and dramatic tension, then to have a bearing on the plot. Claire's birth mother, for instance, and Daphne, the reformed thief who falls in love with Matt.

I digress. I have a suspicion that Heroes would have been more interesting for me if I'd had a good grounding in comic book tropes. I'm betting the writers used, twisted, or flat out sent them up a lot of the time. But it was still a good show, still portrayed a wide range of people and motives and situations, still had interesting things to say about superpowers and what getting them can do to a person. It wasn't black and white. There was no Justice as an ideal. Nobody really went out of their way to make random acts of kindness or save random citizens except when they had a more selfish goal in mind. (It was kind of an all or nothing show. Either they save the whole world, or they don't save anyone.) Possibly I'd have liked to see more altruism, but I'm not sure the show would've suited it.

I think the popularity of Heroes came from the fact that it was the first live-action, people-get-powers show on a major network, and the fact that it came out around the time when people were looking for complex plots, shows with clues and mysteries to figure out, and season-long, even series-long plot arcs. I think its legacy is still a little up in the air. Other networks are doing the people-become-superheroes thing right now, with No Ordinary Family on ABC being initially billed as a new Heroes and The Cape borrowing the comic-book layout and references. I haven't seen enough of either to comment on the plot arcs, but my guess is The Cape has that as well, as will some of the shows that are currently in production. Heroes certainly cemented the idea of 'real people, real problems, now with superpowers!" versus the "he's a superhero, watch him go!" that tends to come out of comic book adaptations, and perhaps that's the legacy in the long run. We like our fantasy these days to have its feet on the ground.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Urban Fantasy at the Movies

I was flipping through my urban fantasy collection the other day, trying to see how Published People Did Things, and I realized something I kind of already knew.

There are some awesome urban fantasy stories. And they have awesome protagonists. In fact, they are so awesome I want to see them on screen.

I'm not just talking about the chicks-with-weapons urban fantasy, though admittedly those were the ones I was looking through. The slow, quasi-epic quests of self that crop up in Gaiman and de Lint's work (among others) would make great movies, and I'm betting that paranormal romance (which I, er, don't read) could be a big hit as well, given that para-rom plots are frequently chicks-with-weapons stories but with more sexing.

No, really, I think urban fantasy adaptations should be the Next Big Thing. Here's why:

  • Hollywood thinks men go to movies for hot women, fight scenes, monsters, blood, big weapons, and explosions.
  • Vampires and werewolves are in at the moment.
  • Hollywood is running out of superheroes. They'll need to replace them with something.
  • As @ElenaLikesBooks pointed out, YA urban fantasies are already being adapted. She mentioned Cassandra Clare. I countered with Melissa Marr. Sarah Rees Brennan's been optioned. And then of course there's already Stephenie Meyer and L.J. Smith.*
  • Urban fantasy's already popular at the box office (and on TV). Underworld, Supernatural, Being Human, True Blood, Medium, Ghost Whisperer, Harry Potter, Enchanted, Sanctuary, Hellboy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel: The Series, Highlander, Warehouse 13, Haven….
  • We haven't had a good quest fantasy since Return of the King, unless I'm not remembering something. 
  • Slower-paced, indie-style films are becoming more popular. UF quest novels would work well in this mode, I think. They'd do well as mini-series too, I'd imagine.
  • Urban fantasy is hot and a number of adult authors, not just Charlaine Harris, have massive followings. Laurell K. Hamilton, anyone?
On the downside, Tanya Huff's and Jim Butcher's urban fantasies have already made it to television, only to be cancelled. But that was a few years ago. There's hope!

Of the urban fantasies I know and love, I think Mike Carey's dark, ghost-infested London, Lilith Saintcrow's demon-rich American desert, and Seanan McGuire's quirky, fae San Francisco have potential. Neil Gaiman's American Gods would make a great mini-series. I worry a little that Hollywood would cheapen the stories, make them shallower and more formulaic, which is what I think happened with the Huff and Butcher adaptations, but shows like Supernatural, Lost, and Fringe prove that dark, complex shows with season-long (or longer) story arcs can and do work for the viewing public.

Which urban fantasies would you like to see on film?

* I should also credit Elena with the superhero analogy.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Different Kinds of Humor

Sometimes when I'm stumped for a blog post, I stand in front of my bookshelves and open my mind. Inspiration usually hits within a couple minutes. Today's inspiration is twofold: I really need to rearrange the sections to incorporate the twenty-odd books I've stacked horizontally, and most of the books I own are funny. So is most of my DVD collection, for that matter. I don't know why this surprised me, really. I've known for years that humor, especially irony and deadpan wit, will hook me pretty consistently.

So my first thought upon re-realizing that I love funny things was that I'd talk about how to write humor. Then I realized that would require a lot more time and energy than I have to spend today, that I'm not exactly qualified to lay down the law on what's funny, and that I'd probably end up writing about how I write humor and who wants to read about that? Really? There's enough self-aggrandizement on this blog already. But one thing I can talk about is the kinds of humor, and what I've noticed about them when it comes to writing (and reading), so that's what I'm going to do.

First off, there's wordplay. This includes puns, spoonerisms, malapropisms, deliberate Freudian slips, deliberate misquoting, and, for ease of paragraphing, one-liners and other amusing turns of phrase. Wordplay's very common in British humor (Oscar Wilde, Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Sheridan, Terry Pratchett, William Shakespeare), and crops up pretty frequently in geek culture (Big Bang Theory), but it's not limited to those instances. Wordplay's fairly simple, after all. Change a sound or two, identify a homophone, and you're all set. One-liners are a little harder, but again, most people have an ear for the snappy comeback at least sometimes.

I find that puns are best used sparingly, because the novelty of them is a large part of their appeal. Spoonerisms and malapropisms are much the same, though I can't think offhand of a book where they're used in the narration. I've only ever encountered them as characterization—Shakespeare's Constable Dogberry, Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop. Quips are found all over. Urban fantasy is rife with them. So is Wilde. So are romantic comedies, sitcoms, and just about anything with a bitter, snarky narrator.

Non sequitur. Comments (or actions) that, because of their irrelevancy to what precedes them, are funny. Monty Python does this a lot ("And now for something completely different"; "Penguins come from the antarctic." "Burma!"). Rickrolling's a more modern form. Terry Pratchett* writes brilliant, meandering conversations that use non sequitur. Again, this tends to be used infrequently because too much exposure can spoil it.

About equal to puns and non sequitur in terms of usage frequency is slapstick, though I'm going to extend the "violence and schadenfreude as humor" definition to include toilet humor, because they seem to go hand in hand these days. The Three Stooges and Warner Brothers cartoons were my introduction to this sort of humor, but I'm also seeing it in low-brow comedies and cartoons aimed at adults such as Family Guy. Why do I say slapstick should only be used occasionally? The Three Stooges. You laugh the first time Larry takes a pratfall, and maybe you laugh the second time, but by the fifth time he's hit by the same board, it's getting old. Perhaps that's just me, though. Moving on…

Situation comedy. This actually takes some skill, I think, because you've got to create a scenario, or characters, or in the case of, say, Lois McMaster Bujold or Terry Pratchett, an entire world that allows for humorous situations. TV and film sitcoms are so frequent they barely bear mentioning, and they tend to be fairly formulaic too. Book-form sitcoms, on the other hand, tend to be a lot more varied and a lot more drawn out. Bujold spends chapters setting Miles Vorkosigan up, just by having him be himself in the world he lives in. Pratchett will drop hints in the first chapter for something that happens in the climax, and you'll write it off as a simple pun. Tom Holt, another comic fantasy writer, favours characters who are in over their heads from page one, and no matter what they do, they just make things worse for themselves.

And of course, you can have sitcom moments in a non-sitcom text, though you've got to be careful that doing so won't break the reader's engagement. A spy, running for his life, who finds himself working for the enemy by accident? Sure! A spy, hiding as an actor who plays spies? Gimme! A spy who, in the middle of a car chase, has a five-minute phone call with his girlfriend because of a misunderstanding? You'd better have set things up so we know we're in a humorous novel, not a hard-boiled one.

And lastly, we hit my favourite kind of humor: irony. There's something of the schadenfreudic in situational and dramatic irony, when a character expects one thing and we know they're getting another, or when we know something's going to backfire. I love the relationship between what we know, and what the characters know, especially when the writer plays with tropes. And then there's sarcasm, which ties into my one-liner comments above. I'm not going to comment much on irony. I've spent too long blogging today and isn't that ironic, considering this was supposed to be an off-the-cuff post? And I also find it easy to write, and I'm sure this skews my perception of how much effort most people put into writing irony.

Wordplay, slapstick, situational comedy, and irony are the nuts and bolts of humor, but a skilled writer won't use them for humor's sake alone. If you combine them into a nuts-and-bolts salad (yes, I know) or, rather, a nuts-and-bolts salad dressing to sprinkle over the plot salad (okay, okay, fine, I'll stop), then you'll end up with fluffy entertainment or satire or parody or comic relief, all of which are valid and necessary in literature. But if you use too many humorous devices, you run the risk of overdoing things. Of saturating the salad and making it unedible, if you will. (Sorry, I lied. Metaphor finished now.)

What's your favorite kind of humor? Did I miss anything?

* This will probably not be the last time I mention him. Sorry.
** Told you we weren't done with him.
*** I may be misquoting.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Knowing What You Write

"Write what you know." It's one of the major commandments of writing. Every writer knows it. Everyone offering writing advice seems to spout it at some point. And y'know, it is important. When a writer knows what they're talking about, their work has this air of authenticity to it. It's got more emotional punch. And in fiction (and memoir), you need that punch and authenticity, or the story's likely be be "only okay" and not "great".

Unfortunately, the idea(s) behind "write what you know" have lost something in the transition to four monosyllabic words that will stick in people's heads, and this means that there are multiple interpretations for what those words actually mean. The more common interpretations I've come across are:

  1. "Only write about things you've personally experienced or already know about." This tends to be the first-encounter, gut reaction type interpretation. It's easily proven wrong. Science fiction and fantasy authors cannot be writing only about what they know, or else there's some massive conspiracy to keep all the magic and futuristic technology a secret from the global population.  People who write murder mysteries can't all be encountering dead bodies or tracking criminals. You get the idea.
  2. "Write about real human experience and emotion." Good. If you can get at the real heart of a situation, the real heart of your characters' response to the conflict, then you're getting somewhere. Heartstrings will be tugged. Tears will be jerked. Pages will be turned. Emotions are important.
  3. Stephen King's advice to never use a word you find in a thesaurus probably counts as "write what you know" as well. You have to know the words you're using. You have to know how to construct phrases and sentences and paragraphs and scenes. You have to know the mechanics. (Patricia C. Wrede has recently finished a blog series on just this. Marvelous read.)

There's a fourth interpretation that pops up occasionally and which I think, personally, is what "write what you know" is really trying to get at. "Do your research." You can have the mechanics perfected. You can describe pain and fear and desperation perfectly. But your story's still going to be flat and unconvincing if you don't have your facts straight. Hollywood sci-fi is marvelous at getting facts wrong.

Yes, personal experience and knowledge is going to be part of this. When humans write about other humans, there's going to be carry-over of actions, habits, emotions, personalities, politics, opinions, fears, etc., etc. And writers, I've noticed, tend to be some of the most voracious consumers of trivia and knowledge out there. That's going to feature in their writing too. Do I really need to know when and why turquoise paint appeared on Coast Salish and Haida totem poles? No, but I do, and it might be important someday.* And I know what it feels like to stand on a Pacific beach, at the top of a mountain, in the middle of a river, on a savannah**, on a boat, and on a sand dune. Funnily enough, there's a Pacific beach in the WIP…

But the research can't end there. Because characters and writers are generally separate people (memoir being the main exception), characters do things and see things that their writers aren't familiar with, and which their writers are liable to get wrong if they don't double-check things. In the past few months, I've read books set in 1920s New York slums, a POW camp on a volcanic planet, Highgate Cemetery, a London archive, and 12th-century Europe. I've read about pimps and junkies, witches, aliens, knights and princesses, and superheroes. The characters and settings have all felt real, because the authors took the time to read books, interview people, visit the settings, and learn new skills. Of course, they've also felt real because the authors took their personal experience with emotion and extrapolated what it would feel like to be Character X in Location Y, but. My point is. They did research. They made sure they knew what they were writing about, so that they could write what they knew. And it showed.

Of course, it's easy to get bogged down in research and never get anywhere close to finishing the story. That hasn't happened with my WIP, but I've certainly gotten sidetracked slightly. There was one delightful evening spent reading up on alternatives to rockets for space flight… I can see myself getting sucked into research at some point, though. There's so much to know! So many details! And how many are too many? I want to be as authentic as possible, after all. But I also know that I only have to know enough to make everything seem real and believable, and not cheese anyone off. I don't need to know what every species of seaweed in my Pacific beach setting is called. Nobody even looks at the seaweed. It's not pivotal to the story. We don't even need to know it's there. But I do need to find someone I can run a handful of Mandarin phrases by, because I know someone's going to call me on it if I don't.

What does "write what you know" mean to you? Do you agree with my take on it? Have you ever gotten sucked into too much research?

* Writers also like to share. Turquoise paint only showed up post-contact, because Europeans supplied the native peoples with the ingredients for the paint. Similarly, the golden age of mask and pole carving was also post-contact, because of how easy it became to get iron tools. Now you know.
** Not in Africa, though, more's the pity.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Writing Update, or Why I Woke At Noon

I've gotten some good writing done in the last couple days. I don't know exactly how much because I'm not tracking word count, but my guess is about 2000 to 2500 words. It may not sound like a lot, but for me during revisions, it is. Unfortunately, a side effect of making progress seems to be staying up until ungodly hours of the morning. Ungodly even for me, who normally goes to bed around two. I'm a little behind on sleep right now and as a result don't have the brain to write an intelligent post, so you won't be getting one today. Sorry.

In the Last Few Days I've Written or Fixed:

  • Hero meeting a new friend
  • Hero beating himself up for lying to the police for the second time
  • Hero getting chewed out for being an idiot (a.k.a. introducing a character)
  • Hero being beat up
  • Hero chewing himself out for running away after being beat up
  • Hero getting to know his new friend a little better
Everything includes foreshadowing, either for my hero's story arc or the mystery arc. I think I'm doing pretty well, all considered. The next scene I have to look at, more to "accept changes" than fix things, involves my hero being chewed out by a different person for being an idiot . (In the course of the novel, I think he gets chewed out and/or yelled at about eight times.)

What've you been writing lately?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Grammar's Changed a Lot in 80 Years

When I was sixteen, I acquired A Dictionary of Correct English, by M. Alderton Pink, M.A.*, a grammar and usage guide published in 1934. I'm no longer sure how exactly I got the book, but the fact remains that when I was seventeen, I read it cover to cover during school time, for fun. No, I'm not actually insane. I'm just a really, really big dork sometimes.

I remember one of things that struck me while reading this book was how much certain usage rules had changed in the nearly 70 years since the book was published. Oh, a lot had stayed the same—there are only so many things you can do with periods and commas—but the changes? They are fantastic, I tell you. Fantastic and hilarious!

(In case anyone's using this post for serious research, I'd like to mention that this book was printed in England, for what appear to be English businessmen. Also, it has been "revised and enlarged", to quote the title page, which makes me wonder when the first publication of it was. All I know is this is the second edition.)

Here are some of the highlights:
  • "The acceptation of a particular word or phrase is its particular sense, its generally accepted meaning"
  • It's accessory, acowstic (not acoostic), applicable, conversant, difthong and diftheria, exquisite, impious, irrefutable, irrevocable, and peremptory. (Bold signifies stress.)
  • You don't admit to something, you admit of it. Similarly, you're supposed to aim at everything; only Americans aim to. Also you connive at; are enamoured of, not with; infringe, not infringe on; infuse into; instill into; are oblivious of; permeate through, but never just permeate; substitute for; and replace by.
  • Business English was annoying complicated even back then, and the writer advises against it.
  • Some people were erroneously pronouncing cinema with a k, deficit with a stressed second syllable, flassid for flaksid (flaccid, in case you didn't catch that), gibberish with a soft g, trait with a final t (like the BBC), and valet without a t.
  • "We may say that a house consists of three reception rooms, five bedrooms, etc., or that it comprises those rooms, but not that it is comprised of the rooms."
  • It is possible to turn up one's nose at various colloquial meanings for words, and various pronunciations, while at the same time saying that "Language is Always Changing".
  • Facilitate should not have a human subject. 
  • The author predicted that the pronunciation of garage that rhymes with carriage would become the standard. 
  • Hectic applies only to fever or flushed cheeks. It does not mean "exciting, wild, hurried".
  • Individual should never be synonymous with person (a shady individual is wrong).
  • The section on the correct form for letters take up five pages. Obscurity takes up six. Paragraphing takes eight. Correct pronunciation of surnames takes up two and a bit pages, with two columns and smaller font. Forms of address for dignitaries and nobles is one page of equally small font. The publisher's list of other helpful books for people in trades and offices takes up thirty-two pages.
  • "The title Esq. ought strictly to be confined to graduates of universities, Members of the House of Commons, private gentlemen, and the members of certain professions."**
  • This fairly stodgy book nevertheless clarifies the pronunciation of orgy and seraglio (which is apparently serahlyo, in case you were wondering).
  • Prepositions can end sentences. "The fact is that those who try to insist on the avoidance of the final preposition have not considered English idiom sufficiently carefully."
  • This fairly stodgy author nevertheless has a bit of wit to him, at least on the subject of strings of prepositions. In fact, he's positively snarky at one point.
  • "We may say—I will prevent him from doing this, or, I will prevent his doing this; but not—I will prevent him doing this."
  • "…ordinary sentences dealing with matters of fact can be punctuated strictly according to rule. But the need for latitude arises when the writing is of an abstract or imaginative character." "Never put a stop*** at any place in a sentence unless a pause would be required in the reading." (Italics original. Asterisks, not so much.)
  • Transpire means "become known", not "happen".
  • Wrath has the same vowel as broad.
Anything in quotes is taken directly from the book, unless it's a definition.

Like I said, it's both interesting and amusing to see what's changed over time. I imagine Mr. Alderton Pink, M.A. turning in his grave at every 'mispronunciation' that's now standard. Of course, I know that I'm used to North American English and he's writing from the perspective of British English, so there are bound to be differences just from that. Any British English speakers who'd like to weigh in on whether these rules have held up over time? Anyone have crazy and/or outdated usage rules to share? Anyone have a favourite rule from the list?

* I could not have made that name up.
** I will be signing my name with Esq. from now on.
*** He means any punctuation mark.