Sunday, November 27, 2016

Endings: Why They are Frustrating and How I Deal with Them

It's Grace again today!  This post has spoilers!  Lots of them!


Why?  Why do they exist?  Why do they torture us by closing a story which we wanted to continue?  Why do they happen badly and suddenly?  Why do they happen so well and leave me satisfied but really really sad because I want more of the story but the story is over?  Why do some endings end up being sad with destruction and no hope for the future?

As you can tell, endings frustrate me.  When they're done well, I love them.  But the simple fact that it is the end of the story and there is no more rips at my soul and completely erases all the love I had for the well done closing of the book.

A few books that frustrated me because of their endings:

1. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams  
I loved this series!  It was fantastic!  But as we approached the ending of the last book, I became increasingly frustrated as I realized that this story was not going to be resolved.  I wanted closure!  What was the question that "42" answers?  Why can't you tell me?  I felt like breaking something after this book.  I loved it!  And then it ended and I felt like doing this:

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Now I admit, it wasn't something that was particularly easy to end.  I mean, it was basically the reason for life the universe and everything, and it would be very hard to find a question that properly sums that up and is answered by "42".  Maybe "Why do cupcakes exist?" or "If the moon is shaped like a rubber duck how many marshmallows live in a purple-sized Cheerio?"  

Anyway, something that really gets to me is lack of closure, and this one certainly left me hanging.  If you don't want me to break something, tie up all the loose ends or give me a sequel!  

2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This one felt very sudden to me.  Just as Scout was finally realizing what was actually going on in her world, just as she meets the man who's been a mystery to her for years, and just as she begins to grow up...POOF!  The story is over and you're done.  It ended well, don't get me wrong, but it's the kind of ending that makes you put down the book and think for a minute about what just happened, because you're not quite certain and you need a moment and some cookies.  You have to wait for a moment before going on with your normal life because you're not absolutely sure what your normal life is supposed to look like.

3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
This is a very disturbing book and I never want to read it again.  I'm glad I did read it, and I recommend that you read it at least once, but once is more than enough.  That being said, this book had an ending that really shocked and surprised me.  The entire book is a bunch of boys turning into cannibalistic, savage, island people, and yet the grown-ups arrive and suddenly everything is back to normal and they're proper and good boys again.  The transition from the rest of the book to the ending is so incredibly sudden that I didn't actually realize it was happening.  I'm not kidding.  I had to look up the ending to this book because it was so crazy that it completely missed my long term memory.  All I could remember was the terrible things that happened right before the adults showed up.  Then I read the ending and my brain just stopped.

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It was a fantastic ending that displayed the boys' mental condition and how they'd been affected by the world around them, but I really had to process it.  

4. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
This ending was very sad to me, not because of the nature of the end, but because of the rest of the book.  I'd gotten so attached to the characters, even the ones who were a little rough around the edges, that when the book was over I was upset for at least a few days because I missed them.  I can honestly say that's the first time I'd ever felt that sensation (at least consciously) with a book.  This wasn't the kind of ending that I didn't like because of how it was done, this was the kind that I didn't like purely because it was an ending, and I didn't want the story to be over.  

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5. Animal Farm by George Orwell
I didn't like this ending because it didn't end well.  There was no hopeful gleam of light at the end of the tunnel anywhere in this book.  Heck, I don't even think it was a tunnel.  It was more of a massive bottomless pit that the characters plummeted slowly down and never thought to look behind them.  And then the ending came and you were hoping for something good.  Maybe a realization that they should bring back the humans.  But no.  The animals simply couldn't see how things had changed, and took everything the pigs said as the whole truth.  The only ones who doubted them were the animals who had been alive for a long time before the change, and they died off before the ending, leaving you with this bleak and terrible book to close and study and laugh maniacally at until you've remembered that it is indeed set in a fictional universe and you happen to be just fine.  

And there you have it.  Five examples of endings that stressed me out, and reasons why.  The books, of course, were fine.  I just didn't like how they ended.  

I think most of my problem is that once you've finished a book, you have to return to reality.  But you're not really sure how to function after being so involved in a fictional world.  You basically just sit in a chair and think for a while.  I know I do.  And after you've done that you have to remember how their world is different from your's.  What is society?  How do I function?  Will I get arrested for holding the Mockingjay symbol up in the air?  What is an acceptable hat?  

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Friday, November 18, 2016

You Want to Go Home and Rethink Your Redemption Arc

Hi!  It's Grace.

So this is the second installment of the "You Want to Go Home and Rethink Your _______", in which I talk about what makes certain attributes of a novel bad, and why you should improve it.  This doesn't mean I believe that thing is inherently bad, just that I'm unhappy with the way it's being brought into fiction.  I'll welcome comments with examples of where someone did a fascinating job, because I think that's amazing.

Before we go any farther, in the first installment I mentioned that the title is from Star Wars.  For those of you who are like me and totally forget every film quote unless you've seen the movie 500 times, here's where we got it from:

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Besides, that's just an awesome scene.  

Okay so on to redemption arcs.  I have nothing serious against the concept being in a book, and I think it's wonderful that characters can begin as terrible people and be less evil by the end of the book.  What I do have against them is the fact that they're often made unrealistic and cheesy.  Here's a few ways to write a terrible redemption arc:

1. Have your character be the only member of their people to realize that something is wrong.
This is something that annoys me to no end.  Someone's entire civilization believes something, and without a voice from above or anything like that this character suddenly thinks "yeah but how about we don't do the thing which we have been doing since the start of civilization?"  He's then rejected by his people and has to go about changing the world.  

This one has the problem of human beans having very few epiphanies like that.  It hardly ever happens in real life, and when it does it's because someone has a vision or has spent their lives on a mountain contemplating human existence.  The two people I can think of off the top of my head who managed this in real life are Jesus (who was just doing what He was sent to earth to do so does He even count?) and Mahatma Gandhi.  I'm sure it's happened more often than that, but not often enough to become a common plot point.  

2. Have your character become a perfect human being. 
Even though Joe rises from his evil and messed up past, he's still going to be imperfect.  He's never going to have all the answers or have his life completely organized.  Even if he ends the story with becoming a good guy and defeating the evil power, he's still going to have things left over from his past life that will affect the choices he makes.  

3. Give your character absolutely no reason to change and then suddenly switch sides.
So imagine you have an evil person bouncing along doing their evil little things.  They are happy in their evilness and have no desire to change.  Then a happy little good person bounces along and they meet, and after fighting the evil person, they both magically turn into good people and hand out ice cream.

This is what it sounds like when you do this in a story.  Give your character a reason to turn to the good side.  Maybe they have crippling guilt or are trying to find happiness.  Maybe they never really wanted to be evil in the first place but ended up doing it to try and save the people they loved.  Anakin Skywalker is a fabulous example of this.

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*gets off chair*  *curls up on floor*  *cries*

He chooses in the end to protect his son from Darth Sidious, giving him a redemption arc as he realizes that the light side is better and he had been tricked.  However, none of this would have made sense if we didn't know why he joined the dark side in the first place.  All he's trying to do is protect his family, and he will do whatever it takes even if it means joining the most evil force in the galaxy.  

If you have your character suddenly change their mind with absolutely no reason behind their switch, you're going to have a very confused reader.  Really this goes with one of the main rules of writing: Don't force your character to change for the sake of plot, force your plot to change because of the character.  Boom.  Done. 

Now here are some ways to make your redemption arc less stupid:

1. Have your character struggle with his former life after he's turned to the light side.
Because that is literally all I think of when trying to describe good versus evil.  Light and dark side.  My brain is turning into a Star Wars episode.  But anyway, on to my point.  If your character does not have some kind of conflict after turning good, you have a problem.  In fact, your character probably shouldn't turn "good" all at once.  Most things like that happen gradually, and even if it seems like your character made the decision on the spur of a moment, things will happen that lead up to his choice.  That being said, once he's made his choice he's unconsciously going to think like he had before changing, and it's going to take him a while to completely fix his problems, if he ever actually manages to do so.  

2. Have your character face difficulties joining the good side.
Would you trust someone who'd been shooting at you five seconds ago?  Yeah, me neither.  So make sure that the people he's siding with don't trust him.  Especially if he's the main antagonist.  I mean, you've got someone who's been working for the entire novel to stop the protagonist, and now he's sided with him!  I don't think I'd trust him very much either.

On a totally unrelated note, what if the antagonist pretended to have a redemption arc but he was actually just tricking the people into letting him into their group so he could beat them?  Can this happen?  Because it should.  It's okay if it takes awhile, you'd have to write an entire book.  

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So there you have it.  Ways to make your redemption arc less stupid.  Some of those points sound very similar, but I'm trying, here, okay?  This is something I have some trouble with, because I want people to be happy and eat cupcakes.  Faith is better at making characters' lives miserable, so if you have any more questions talk to her and I'll be in my Hobbit-hole watching people and characters do stupid things.

Seriously, though.  There is nothing worse than second-hand embarrassment.  I can't stand it when characters do stupid things and I'm powerless to stop it.  I yell at the screen or the books or internally at real people and get really angry when they don't take my advice.  Sometimes it gets so bad I can't take it and just walk away and let the silly peasants deal with it themselves.  

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What's the Deal with Dystopia?

Disclaimer: Someone pointed out to me that this might be taken as a political post.  It has nothing to do with any current events and is just an idea that popped into my head this afternoon.

It's Grace today!  (Or Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Or Bilbo Baggins.  Or Mrs. Hudson.  I'd probably answer to all three.)

Sudden inspiration for this post slapped me in the face just five seconds ago while chatting with my friend Grace.  Yes, we have the same name.  No, we are not the same person.

Anyway, I'd never actually thought about why people like dystopian fiction so much.  I mean, everything is terrible, people die, and the love triangles are flat and lifeless!  But then I had an epiphany.  

People don't read dystopian novels for the repulsion, they read them for the revolution.  

Yep!  People love the idea of dystopia because the characters always rise above the madness and the rubble and change the world.  You see, you can't change things for the better if the situation doesn't need changed.

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Now of course you also have characters to get attached to and and love triangles to fight over and President Snows to hate with a terrible loathing, but those are the icing on the cake.  People have always loved the idea of the common people rising up and defeating a monster larger than themselves and gaining freedom.  These people are willing to give their lives for a noble cause, and defend the rights that they used to have.  

This is what makes the characters so memorable, because in order to have a revolution, you need determined people who aren't afraid to get the job done.  They might not be perfect, but they're dependable (or not if you're going with the ideas in this post) and strong.  They're willing to give up everything they know to fight for what they believe in. 

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Can we all take a moment to appreciate the guy dancing on the table?

Everyone has the desire inside of them to win whatever battle their fighting and create a better life.  Dystopian novels encourage that desire, and show them that they can in fact win.  Because the main characters have to be bold and unafraid of death, they give us the ammunition we need to do the same.  Even though they'll probably die, the characters are determined to die doing something that will leave behind a legacy and change the world.  They are reckless and unpredictable because they know that people who stay in their homes and never speak their mind will never make a difference or be heard.

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Now I admit, dystopian novels aren't for everyone.  I don't enjoy them very much, which is why this blew my mind so violently.  And there might be people who read them solely for the romance or the character development.  This probably doesn't go completely across the board, because no two people are the same.  And, you know...

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Obi, dear, that was an absolute statement.

So there you have it.  If you have any other ideas as to why people read in this genre or why it's so popular, let me know in the comments!  I'd love to hear your opinions.  

Grace out. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Taking Criticism

In my Creative Writing class, we have workshops. And the point of workshops is to get feedback, which often comes in the form of criticism. Most of the time, it’s just little things -- I didn’t really understand this, this seems out of character, etc. etc., but there is one critique I’ve gotten over and over from the same person that I just don’t know how to take.

Why should I read your writing?

Yes, that is the proper reaction face
Now let me straighten something out. This is not a blog post to bash on this henceforth and forever unnamed person. For what it’s worth, Unnamed, if you’re reading this, I like your writing and I think you’re a pretty cool person. However, I am going to bash on the question.

What does that even mean? “Why should I read your writing?” I suppose you should read it because you were assigned it in class. I guess you should read it if you find it interesting. If it resonates with you. If that’s not the case, then...well, what the heck? Why are you still reading it? I know from my workshop that it’s not just my professor and I who like it; other people like it too. My friend likes it. I haven’t tried to get it published, so maybe they wouldn’t like it. I don’t know. I don’t actually care. This is a first draft. (Am I doing workshops wrong? Should I not be bringing first drafts?) If it doesn’t resonate with you, then, well...I’m sorry?

This is a very interesting question because it’s simultaneously legitimate and not legitimate. Let’s look at the legitimate part first.

“Why should I read your writing?” If you’re writing for an audience, yes, this is very important. You want your readers to have a reason for continuing. If there’s not one, then they are totally justified in putting down the book. If you aren’t connecting with your intended audience, then you need to sit down with them, listen to their critiques with an open ear, and do your best to get to know them.

A word to the intended audience, though. In this case, please try to come up with a more specific question than “Why?” It’s not going to help anyone. Tell the author exactly what is not connecting with you. That’s helpful. Obviously this does not apply to agents and publishers etc...they don’t have time for that. But in a workshop? Heck yeah. It matters.

Now for the illegitimate part. (Is that how you say it? It makes the question sound like an out-of-wedlock child. Weird.)

Why should I read your writing? I...really don’t care. One of the problems with workshops is that the people you’re working with may not be part of your intended audience at all. When I write, I generally write for people who are very in tune with their emotions and pick up on the smallest amount of distress without it being explicitly stated. I haven’t gotten more specific than that because...well, I’m not actively trying to be published yet. I write for me and anyone else who happens to align with that. So if one specific person doesn’t connect, I have no problem with that. I can’t respond to that sort of criticism because it doesn’t matter. I’m writing for me right now. Why you should read it has nothing to do with it.

Am I getting the point of workshops wrong? Should I be making my fellow workshoppers my audience?

Secondly, the question is flat out hurtful. It preys on the deepest fears of every writer -- that they aren’t worth reading. That there isn’t any reason for people to take a look at their hearts and souls. And before I dig myself into a hole, I am quite aware that this was not the critiquer’s intention. She’s just trying to get me to look more deeply into the story. But look at what? That’s what I’m not getting. How am I supposed to make it more in tune to you? I hardly know you!

You could justify this by saying that the writing world is tough and we need to get used to having our feelings wounded, but I really don’t think the workshop is the place to do that. Plus when my feelings get hurt, I tend to raise my voice and get really snarky and may bite your ears off. Just a warning.

Actual picture of an emotionally charged workshop
Thirdly, the question is mindbogglingly subjective. It all depends on Why You Read. And every person reads for a different reason. I personally read for emotion. I’m kind of an emotion junkie. There’s probably a sci-fi story in that. But anyway, I can read a story where nothing really spectacular happens (aka Catcher in the Rye) and still love it because of the distress and internal conflict of the character. Even though Han Nolan’s CRAZY was just a bunch of kids going to therapy when it came down to it, I still loved it because the characters really resonated with me. Do those books have unique elements that make them stand out? Yeah! Would I probably have enjoyed them even if they didn’t? Well, maybe not so much, but if the internal conflict was basically the same then I probably would have.

Other people are different. Some people need huge external conflicts like wars or life-and-death situations to catch their interest. Some read to find earth-shattering insight. Some read for sex. (Hey, I’m just saying.) We’re all different and the question “Why should I read your writing?” just doesn’t capture your intended critique. It might sound like a cool, short way to get your point across, but it’s really not.

I did get a chance to talk with Unnamed a bit today, and we’re still not on equal footing, but I understand a bit more of what she meant now. Her real problem was that she thought my main character was bland and I was portraying her trauma due to blindness incorrectly. I can get that. My question is…

So if you take away anything from this blog post...BE SPECIFIC and SAY WHAT YOU MEAN. Especially if you’re critiquing. If you’re the one being critiqued, then take a deep breath, talk to the person about it, cry, watch a movie, rant online, and then sort through the critique for something helpful.

My questions for y’all are: What sort of criticism irks you the most? What do you find most helpful? Thoughts on writing workshops?

Thanks for reading, and hopefully I’ll see you around soon!

(Disclaimers: Written quickly. Highly emotional author. Memes are not my own. Title picture is mine. Faith out.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

It is Possible to be Both Terrified and Delighted at the Exact Same Time.

If you haven't read Pride and Prejudice and are planning on doing so, point 4 has a spoiler.  Unless you already know what happens because the book is at least 200 years old.

Hey guys!  It's Grace!  I'm really happy about this month's short story challenge.  Why?  Because it's historical fiction!  And if you've read any of my other posts, you know that I LOVE HISTORICAL FICTION!  OR ANYTHING TO DO WITH HISTORY AT ALL!

But there's also something else extremely writerly happening this month.

Does anyone know what it is? (please my inner teacher and raise your hand if you know the answer)

That's right!  NaNoWriMo!  For those of you who are new to this, it's basically a month where writers torture themselves to produce 50,000 words by the end of November.  For those who succeed, a crown of glory awaits.  Those who don't either vow to try again next year, become highly motivated and actually finish the book on their own, or cry in a corner over their favorite ice cream and wonder if they should become a hedgehog.  I'm not exactly expecting to win this year (mostly because I'm doing two novellas instead of a novel, which might complicate things), but if by some odd chance a little fairy kindles my muse and I pound out 50,000 words, I will hold a party.

There are generally two reactions to NaNoWriMo and they totally depend on your personality.  There's this one:
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Aaaaaaaand then there's this one:

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I'm the bottom one, because I am an INFJ and am known for looking mildly alarmed.  Some people do not understand this, but to be fair I don't understand how some people don't think LOTR is cool.  So we're even.  

So onto historical fiction.  As much as I love this, I'm actually not going to talk a whole lot about it.  And you know what?  Let's just jump right into the tips.  Because tips are fun!  

1. Historical Fiction is NOT the same as Fantasy.
There can be a fine line between the two, but they are not the same thing.  A work of historical fiction is a story set in the actual timeline of history as we know it, in our universe, with fictional characters or a fictional character.  These characters will be affected by the historical events happening around them, and are trapped inside the bonds of what actually happened in the past.  A work of fantasy is, by pure definition of the word, a story that involves the improbable or deviates from our reality.  You can have a fantasy novel set in a historical era, but it's not historical fiction.  

Of course we must remember that you occasionally have improbable occurrences in real life, but if your story has something like, say, time travel, or a special race of elves, you're not writing historical fiction any more.

2. Historical fiction MUST be accurate.
Seriously.  This is such a huge pet peeve of mine, and I'm pretty sure I can say that all other history lovers on the planet get really mad when reading a story with a historical inaccuracy.  If you're writing fantasy (which you shouldn't be if you're following the challenge), you can bend the rules.  NEVER change a historical event or timeline.  NEVER.  

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3. Don't be afraid to add real historical stuff. 
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away, there was a write by the name of G.A. Henty.  He boys' adventure books, which were also fabulously written historical fiction novels.  His main characters were fictional, but he always surrounded them with people who actually existed, and used the fictional characters as a bridge to reach the real ones.  Don't shy away from including historical figures or events because while it does take a mountain of research (you have to know every detail of what your character would see), it can be incredibly cool to read a story that has a real person in it.  Even though they're dead...

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4. It doesn't have to be romance.
I think this is a pretty important point, because there is a lot, and I mean A LOT of historical fiction romance novels floating around out there.  I don't have anything against them, nothing solid anyway, but there is so much more you can do with that genre.  Make it an adventure!  Get your character captured by pirates!  Or poisoned!  Or something!  

But if you do make it a love story, please remember how much everyone flipped out when foolish Lydia Bennett and Mr. Wickam eloped in Pride and Prejudice.  You can be as up-and-coming as you like, but respect the opinions of the past!  Seriously.  There were things you simply did not do.  Or if you did, you were practically a societal outcast.  

So there you have it!  Write your historical fiction short story, and try to survive NaNoWriMo.  Good luck with that, by the way!  And if you've never done it and have no idea what I'm talking about, go ahead and look it up...if you really like stress and headaches and pushing yourself to complete impossible deadlines!

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