Friday, July 29, 2011

Fiction and Zombies and Mash-ups, Oh My!

I'm starting to get annoyed by the word mash-up. It's being used too widely and at the expense of other, better descriptors. It's become a buzzword, which means that it's nearly meaningless.

I wouldn't have this problem if the connotations of mash-up were more positive. For me, mash-up means "goofy, silly, poorly thought-out, capitalizing on a trend". The first use of mash-up I ran into was in reference to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—"a Jane Austen-zombie mash-up". I liked PP+Z. It had a good hook, and pretty decent execution. But then everyone jumped on the bandwagon and within months we were inundated with titles. Some of those books, or at least the hooks that pitched them, sounded dubious. "How," I asked myself, "is Little Women improved with werewolves, or Huck Finn with zombies?" The reviews I've read seem to confirm this.*

So mash-up went from describing a blend of apparently incompatible ideas to describing a blend of apparently incompatible ideas that doesn't succeed. The core meaning's still there, of course, but when a good mash-up shows up or a book/movie/game/show is pitched as one, I think people are more likely to write it off. "It's a mash-up," they say, "so it can't be any good, really." (Possibly this is what I'm doing with Little Women and Werewolves, et al.)

And now on to what sparked this post: I've seen Cowboys and Aliens described as a mash-up, and I don't think it is. Cowboys and aliens are not incompatible ideas the way the way regency romance and the living dead are. It's fairly easy to imagine cowboys and aliens interacting, after all, whereas a large part of the hook for PP+Z was how they were going to pull it off. If Cowboys and Aliens is a mash-up, so is Midsummer Night's Dream, which is essentially a romantic comedy with fairies. If Dream were a movie today, yes, I'd go watch it because hey, fairies, but I'd go in expecting it to be kind of bad and the fairies to be not entirely necessary to the story. I'm certainly going to go into Cowboys and Aliens expecting to be entertained, but nothing more—not because it's a Hollywood summer blockbuster, but because it's been pitched as a mash-up.

So what are the other, better descriptors I mentioned? How can we describe fiction that blends ideas without resorting to the shorthand du jour? Option one is to pitch it as X meets Y—the OK Corral meets Independence Day, romantic comedy meets English folklore. Option two is to form a compound noun—alien invasion western, fantasy romcom. I'll also throw out blend, mix, and combination as possibilities. Firefly is not a cowboys-space mash-up, it's a show about the Old West in space, or a space western. Calling it a mash-up would do it a disservice, and the same goes for a lot of the other work that's getting labelled as such. I think more people would pick up those books or watch those movies if mash-up never featured in the blurbs.

My suggestion, then: If we're going to use mash-up to describe anything, let's use it for the creative works with apparently incompatible ideas—Julius Caesar and unicorns, to throw an idea out there, or Adam and Eve and pirates. Anything we can imagine scenarios for, and anything that can be described without using mash-up should be. The word is perfectly functional, but the more functions we give it, the more it's used when it doesn't have to be, the less it's going to mean, and what use is a descriptive word without meaning?

Interested in mash-ups? The Qwillery has a thorough list of them.

* True story: I work at a bookstore and we can't move Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters for anything.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Green Lantern

During university, a couple friends and I often found ourselves doing a late night study-and-chat session in the dorm lounge, with bad sci-fi films in the background. One night, I called every single plot point in the movie within a minute of it happening. "The mom's going to disappear." "The dad's possessed." "That teacher isn't going to believe those kids." "It's going to rain in 5, 4, 3…." "He's going to drop that flashlight."

Green Lantern was kind of like that. The film felt predictable, like the writers had listed every important action/superhero trope and written the script to fit them all, but their hearts weren't in it. They were basically following a formula. Hal doubts himself; Hal is presented with opportunity to stop doubting himself. Hal gets snapped at by love interest; Hal saves love interest; love interest falls for Hal. So on, so forth. Jami Gold has done a great deconstruction of the flaws of the film, with bonus! writing! instruction!, here and here. Go read her posts 'cause otherwise I'd be repeating everything here.

Since Green Lantern wasn't a good movie, it would be easy to write off Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern Corps, and all the space-cop hijinks that surely appear in the comics. After all, if the movie sucks, the 'verse must suck, right? But that would be too easy, and doing the character, etc., a disservice. The Green Lantern has a fanbase, so the comic has to be good. Unfortunately, I only have the movie to go on at the moment, so I'm sure I'll be missing out on complexities and nuances. If you're a Green Lantern fan and reading this, feel free to chip in in the comments.

Hal Jordan: Has the potential to be an interesting character. Depending on the writing, he'll either be a Tony Stark-like playboy without the mad science, or an American son doing good in the world, along the lines of Superman. I'm not sure I'd be sold on either interpretation—if I want a kooky playboy, I'll probably pick Tony—but they could both be cool and complex enough to carry a series and capture fans.

The ring and lantern: An interesting idea, though the 'power of will' stuff feels like the product of a late-night brainstorming session with alcohol. I like that the ring chooses its wearer. I like that the ring isn't limitless and occasionally needs to be recharged. I like that the ring functions as a communication and warning device (I'd wondered how Hal was going to know about extraterrestrial crime). And I really, really like that you can basically do anything, create anything, if your will is strong enough. They could've had more fun with that in the film.

The Green Lantern Corps: Again, interesting. Lots of potential. As I understand it, the comics don't always follow Hal (or the other human Lanterns), so we can meet an infinite number of characters, with infinite body shapes, infinite personalities, who'll solve problems in ways that Hal wouldn't think of. And the team dynamics! And of course, because there are so many alien races, from so many sectors, and they fight crime, that means all kinds of crimes, on all kinds of worlds! (I'm probably over-thinking this and the comics won't be nearly as cool as my imagination. C'est la vie.)

Sinestro: Again, potential. He's arguably the most complex character in the film. He's got a stern, warrior spirit. He's a good leader. He wants to be the best he can be, and to fight as well as he can, and if that means wearing the yellow ring instead of his green one, so be it. Which means he's weak and doubts himself, if only a little. I often favour villains over heroes, and Sinestro's another example of that. I want to know more about him, because his backstory and POV are bound to be really cool.

Hector Hammond: The other candidate for most complex character in the film, though a poor one because he's largely shown as "wimpy scientist". However, he does have daddy issues and a crush, and could redeem himself if he really wanted. It's a shame that he was so flat and had so little screen time in the movie, because he could've been a pretty great villain in his own right, instead of a mild threat leading up to the big showdown. I found it interesting that he'd known Hal for a long time, as kind of friends with him. In most canons, that personal connection would set up a major enemy, not a minor one.

Parallax: He has an interesting origin story, but as an ex-immortal alien I'd expect him to be more powerful and harder to defeat. All he seems capable of is sucking yellow skeletons out of people, roaring, and the occasional bout of mind control. I think Green Lantern might've been better as a trilogy, with the Parallax line spread out. Film 1: Hal defeats Hector. Film 2: Hal defeats a bunch of fear-controlled people, aware of Parallax as puppet master. Film 3: Hal defeats Parallax. Or perhaps that would be the three acts of the film, and we could skip the origin story? Anyway, yeah, Parallax is cool. I could certainly see more of him.

The other elements of the film—the love interest, the military—are too flat and basic for me to get much out of them. I like that the love interest was skilled in a couple areas, all typically male, but at the same time, that struck me as both "Eh, really? You're trying too hard, writers and "Does doing man things make her hotter, guys?" She seemed smart and sensible, at least, so that's points in her favour.

Even though I've said most of the main elements are interesting and have potential, I'm not sure I'll go further  into the 'verse. If I come across something, yeah, I might pick it up and take a look, but I won't seek it out. There's something about superpowered space cops that doesn't "fit" for me. I have a suspicion that the comics will be pretty flat, pretty black-and-white, and fairly formulaic. And anything with "cops" has connotations of Law and Order and CSI, for me—very serious, not a lot of humor. Part of the appeal of superheroes for me is the camp, the quips, and so on.

All that aside, I am glad I watched the film and got introduced to the characters and their powers. More to think about. Maybe I am writing the 'verse off too soon, maybe I'm not. Like I said, if I see something, I'll take a look. Maybe that'll change my mind.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I Am a Big Fat NERD

I've seen Green Lantern and will be writing a post on it, but not yet. Not today. Instead, I'm doing an Awesome Science post, because I haven't done one in a while and I didn't want to spam my Twitter feed last night. So here are some links that've caught my eye lately:

All non-African humans are part Neanderthal. I can't describe how happy this makes me, on several levels. First off, we have definite proof of interbreeding now. I was always kind of in favour of that theory, and the periodic announcements of "maybe we did interbreed" got me pretty excited too. Nothing compared to this, though. And then of course we have the feat by which we got this proof—comparing modern human genomes to DNA derived from 50,000-year-old bones. Science is amazing.

A gorgeous Bornean rainbow toad, thought to be extinct.

An electron microscope photo of a hydrothermal worm. Warning: clicking will give you nightmares.

Three-billion-year-old life in the Great Lakes. Except I'm not totally convinced the microbes date that far back. Couldn't they have evolved from aerobic to anaerobic as they discovered a new environment?

Microscopic food photography.

A short documentary on karakuri, also known as traditional Japanese robots automatons. Very lovely. I want my future to have robots like these.

Karakuri from Matthew Allard on Vimeo.

Have you heard of any neat science lately? Share it in the comments!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rewrites: Practice is Helpful

I took French and German in high school. The languages themselves have a pretty low role in my daily life—I don't read foreign news, I don't speak the languages at work, I don't write in them, etc. But studying those languages taught me things that I apply to my writing. I learned about cases, idioms, and translation, and how people of other cultures think, which I don't think anyone will deny is helpful to a writer. But I also learned something even more awesome. I learned how to rewrite sentences.

If you've ever studied a language, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, well: when you're learning grammar in a formalized, school-type setting, you "get" to write sentences, paragraphs, letters, essays, recipes, and all kinds of texts that demonstrate or drill in the lesson of the day. In German, for example, any verbs in a subordinate clause and any verbs after a modal (e.g., can, will, ought, must) get shunted to the end of the clause, so you get stuff like "I want to the store go" and "because I short am". Because this is slightly tricky for English speakers, I was assigned a lot of practice paragraphs, which I often got to make up based on a prompt.

… Unfortunately, I didn't always have the vocabulary to deal with the topic. I was prone to thinky-thoughts and metaphors and convoluted sentences even then, and it's hard to convey those when you only know how to find tourist attractions and buy food. Even looking words up didn't always help, so I was forced to stop and think about what I was writing. Specifically, I thought, "Is there a simpler way to say this?"

There usually was. Sometimes there was a simpler word I could use. I could split the idea into multiple clauses. I could use multiple sentences. In really terrible cases, where I'd written myself into a corner because no language is designed to convey the images in my mind perfectly and I'm a fan of hugely complicated sentences, I'd have to restart entirely. I maintain that this process—recognizing a problem with my writing, identifying the problem, trying various solutions until one of them worked, repeating the steps—helped me become a better writer, long before I knew that writing was something I wanted to do.


The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Let's assume that we can't use 'lazy'. It has the wrong connotation, or the narrator/POV doesn't have the concept, or something.  What else can we use, then? Alternate words might be 'sleepy', 'tired', or 'bored'. Not quite the meaning, but they get the job done. We could also use a phrase, such as "the dog who didn't want to do anything" or "the dog who didn't like working".

This is the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.

This sentence is very hard to follow. Too many clauses. We need to break it up a little.

  • That cow with the crumpled horn tossed the dog, who'd worried the cat. The cat had killed the rat that had eaten Jack's cheese.
Not the best solution, but again, it gets the job done and we can worry about smoothing things out later. However, I'd prefer to show the sequence of events in order, more gradually, as happens in the original rhyme. That way we can space out the events and maybe elaborate on them a little as we go.
  • One day, in the house he had built for himself at the edge of the forest, Jack made cheese. He hung it from the rafters in a bag of cheesecloth, and left to gather wood. As soon as he'd gone, a rat scurried up the drainpipe, through a gap in the wall that Jack didn't know about, and was soon nibbling at the edges of the cheese. Jack's cat, Mr. Mouser, saw this and …
We could string that out even further, if we wanted, and turn it into a full-fledged adult plot or at least several paragraphs, rather than the text of a picture book. I'll leave that to you, though.

She gave her book to the girl, and she liked it.

Ambiguous! Who is "she" in the second half of the sentence?
  • She gave her book to the girl, who liked it.
  • She gave her book to the girl, which made her happy.
Er… we still have ambiguity in the second example. Trying again:
  • It made her happy to give her book to the girl.
Yeah, now we have a sentence starting with 'it' but at least we know who's happy.

After a long day of work, in which I will walk around and climb ladders and organize shelves and help customers and clean and put out stock, I will travel approximately 30 minutes via public transit and foot in order to watch the final, ultimate, very last Harry Potter film at midnight, with friends, who'll be holding our place in line from at least dinner time, and it's the only thing I'm going to think about all day.

Agh, another long and convoluted sentence! This one has the problem of too much information, along with being maybe a little hard to follow, so what are we going to do this time? Take out the needless and redundant stuff.
  • I'm going to the last Harry Potter film tonight, with friends. I'm excited!
Of course, these sentences were deliberately found/written as easy examples. The sentences I come up with in my writing are generally worse and require more trying and more thinking before I find a workable solution. But y'know, that's okay, because the more I rewrite sentences and the more terrible examples I fix, the better I'll be at rewriting in the future. It's all about the practice!

So here's a challenge for you: Find a text—a blog post, a news article, a book, an email, whatever—and rewrite it. If it's badly written, make it well-written. If it's well-written, make it terrible. If it's one genre, make it another. Adopt a different writer's style. Make it your own style. If it's past tense, make it present. If it's first-person, make it third. The goal is to rewrite the work in some form, for the experience and the practice. I bet it'll be eye-opening, because it is for me.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Characters From Life

Yesterday I noticed that I've begun picking minor characters almost exclusively from people I meet at work. Sort of noticed, anyway. Re-noticed. I've been characterizing from life for years, but it wasn't till yesterday that I sat up and said, "Hey, yeah, that is what I'm doing." And I'm sure in a year or two I'll have the same moment all over again.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not stealing peoples' identities wholesale*, but I'm taking personality types, behaviours, and ways of speaking, and giving them to my characters. A walk-on character, one who only appears for a scene, who maybe gets a single line, gets one trait to distinguish them. The more they're around, the more I borrow from my customers. I've yet to take anything from people I commute with, largely because I don't see enough repeat faces and buses aren't the most social of situations. People don't talk to strangers or move around much on buses, so it's harder to people-watch.

It's highly recommended by People In The Know for writers to people-watch. It helps with dialogue, characterization, voice, and all kinds of things. So if you're a writer, you probably do this already. Maybe, if you're like me, you watched people long before you became a writer. Maybe it was the reason you became a writer, or one of the reasons. A fascination with people and what makes them tick is certainly a factor in the stories I tell.

One of the reasons I lift personality traits rather than personalities is because that's simply easier. A minor character doesn't need to have the same weight as my protagonist, whether on the page or in my mind. When I'm reading, I barely pick up on the personalities of walk-on parts, because what they say or do is generally more important to the story than their appearance, and I'm sensitive to that knowledge when I'm writing.

The other reason I only lift traits is because I'm worried about someone I know reading the book and recognizing themselves. Call me paranoid but I'd rather not be sued for defamation of character, or anything else. Then again, lifting a specific, uncommon trait could still bring down a lawsuit, but so far, I haven't had a minor character demand anything more than a generic trait of a demographic. A high-powered businesswoman who snaps at store clerks who ask her to get off the phone is a completely different animal from the woman who comes every few weeks to talk to me about vampire novels, because we've established that I know more than my coworkers on the subject.

Watching people also means less research for me in other areas. I've met people who conform to stereotypes, people who don't conform, and people who only conform until you get to know them. When I'm creating characters I don't have to work at avoiding stereotypes as much as a result, and can create deeper, more layered people. I can base my characters on people I've encountered instead of starting from scratch—and yes, that includes main characters. Of course, I still have to make sure that unwanted stereotypes haven't crept in, because that's the 21st-Century responsible thing to do, but again, I have a knowledge base that includes non-stereotypes so there's less research needed.

I'm not a Person In The Know by any reckoning, but I do recommend that if you write, you should make a habit of noting what people around you do. It is helpful, if only because it makes populating scenes a lot easier. Need someone to bump into the protagonist on a crowded street? Need a redshirt? Need an amusing byplay to lighten the mood? You'll have a list of people and situations you can stick in, and won't have to dredge your mind. And of course I recommend going for generic traits or people who don't really know you, over specific traits and people who do, but bear in mind that I'm biased because that's what I do.

Where do you get your characters from? Do you people-watch? Do you share my paranoia?

* that I'm aware of