Thursday, July 26, 2012

Here's Sleeping With You, Kid: If Hollywood Made Casablanca Today

There's no movie like Casablanca. You can find all the ingredients for story greatness in here. Interpersonal tension (off the charts!). Suspense. High stakes that just keep rising. A setting that breathes like a character. An unbeatable antagonistic force, and a personalized villain. Character-driven humor. A romance with believable obstacles. A conclusion both unpredictable and inevitable. Heroes who are selfish and noble at the same time. Sacrifice.

If a Greatest Film of All Time existed, this might be it.

So why doesn't Hollywood make movies like this anymore? Well, occasionally, they still do. Sort of. On the whole, though, most movie buffs will admit, contemporary films tend toward formula. So much so that we can pretty much imagine what would happen if Casablanca had been written and filmed today.

1.) Sympathy for Sex. Rick and Ilsa meet again and ... keep their clothes on. But today, we're supposed to cheer when two characters in love finally consummate their passion. Ilsa's marriage to Victor wouldn't matter. And speaking of Victor ...

2.) Love Triangle Madness. Victor Laszlo risks the most, has the most to lose, suffers the most. In fact, we don't want him to lose Ilsa, because he loves her, and he's a good guy. What writer today would portray him so nobly? He might seem nice at first, but by the end, we'd have to villify him. Why? So we could all cheer when Ilsa broke her vow and left him for her true destiny, the real love of her life. Or, maybe he'd get to be a decent guy. Except that would mean ...

3.) Hard Choice with Consequences? No, Thanks. Victor has to die. Because of course, Ilsa has to end up with Rick. And if Victor doesn't turn out to be shallow or nasty, he needs to be out of the picture altogether. It's magic: Ilsa doesn't have to choose, nobody has to feel bad for cheating. In fact, not even the viewers have to choose Team Victor or Team Rick.

Your turn, fellow readers (and film viewers)! Anybody love Casablanca a tenth as much as I do? Want to add to my list above? Or, recommend to us a classic you're glad has never been remade.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Promises, Promises: Why Mockingjay Infuriated Me

File:Mockingjay.JPGFinally got current(ish) with my dystopia reading--a good idea, since that's what I'm writing. A few weeks ago, I finished Mockingjay. Rarely has any book elicited such ire. Here's why: the writer-to-reader promise.


The concluding scene of Catching Fire made me cry. For Peeta, of course, but also for Katniss. Her only goal this time around was his survival, and now she has to face that death would have been a less painful reality for him. And this hurts her. Because Peeta matters to her.

I wanted--no, needed--to read the next book not only to learn Peeta's fate, but also to see Katniss's newfound unselfishness continue to grow. Ms. Collins promised it would. Katniss had learned to see Peeta as a person. Maybe she was even learning to love him.

But in Mockingjay, for no good reason, Katniss snaps into instant regression. She takes half the book to break down over Peeta's torture, and the rescue attempt isn't even her idea. When he's back but hijacked out of his head, she goes to see him once. Once. She gives him up almost instantly as "irretrievable." And she leaves the District and tries not to think about him anymore. In fact, she probably would never have laid eyes on him again, if Coin hadn't sent him to assassinate her.

Then we're in battle with them, and Peeta realizes he's a danger to everyone, that he has no way of knowing what's "real or not real." My heart broke for him when he pleads for Katniss to kill him, for her own safety. In that moment, I didn't need some melodramatic declaration of love. I didn't need a kiss, or a paragraph of dialogue in which she extolled all Peeta's virtues. I just needed her to say, "I'm not killing you because you're worth saving. Because you're Peeta."

Instead, we get, "I'm not killing you, so stop wasting my time asking me to."

The epilogue seems intended to rip out any root of hope that the last line of the final chapter could be true. Sure, Katniss had Peeta's kids. Because he wanted some. But there's such a lack of love in her, even for them, that she doesn't bother using their names.

I. Hated. Her.

Once I'd gotten over my initial fury, analytical me resurfaced. Katniss from the first book would have done all the things I hated her for in the third book. What was my problem?

I get the effect this kind of life, this degree of violence would have on a person. From the first page of this series, Katniss is emotionally stunted. And only a sociopath (which she isn't quite) could survive the Hunger Games without severe PTSD. Emotional numbing? To be expected. Fear of attachment, for sure. After all, what's the point, everyone's going to die. So that's not my problem.

I'm not a Happily Ever After Reader. Never have been. So that's not my problem.

Here's my problem. In that second book, the author gave Katniss an emotional arc, a journey of change. That arc is a promise: when you see Katniss again, she will be this new person. Not the old one.

Did the author make the promise in order to break it? I want to hope not, because that indicates some serious reader manipulation on her part. However, I can't chalk up Katniss's actions (or that hideous epilogue) to anything else. Especially given the overall skill with which this series was written.

If I'm right, this author exploited my emotions on purpose. Skillfully and successfully. So yes, she's brilliant. But ... how can I trust her?

Have you read this series? Did you feel the same way? Do you think I'm nuts?

How do you define the writer-to-reader promise? Is it universal, or does it differ for different readers? Can you recommend us some authors you trust to keep their promises?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

God Gave Me An Agent: Exceedingly Abundantly More Than I Could Ask Or Think

I sent my first query in November 2009, years before I was ready. After a polite form rejection ("not what I'm looking for at this time"), I kept rewriting. In June 2010, I attended my first writing conference, Write To Publish in Illinois. Overflowing with artistic zeal, I queried again in July. This rejection wasn't a form. I was told I had good "story approach" but needed to work on my craft "in order to stand out."

So I did. I attended a My Book Therapy craft retreat. I rewrote and revised. At ACFW 2011, I met three amazing ladies (Charity, Erynn, and Jess) whose stories I love and whose hearts I connected with. We're now the Best Crit Group Ever (trademark pending). ACFW's agent appointments provided me with invaluable feedback on my first chapter. I continued revising and rewriting. I queried three more agents and received two non-response rejections and one very helpful, personalized rejection.

(End backstory deluge. Don't worry, I don't do this in my fiction.)

Along the way, I was given an adamant (and sensible) piece of industry advice from some reputable people. "Don't write the second book in your series. Not until you sell the first one."

Instead, I was told, write something new. Something unrelated to the storyworld. Create some new characters and let these ones "go to sleep" for awhile. You can wake them back up and finish Haven Seekers (my current series) when you sell the first book.

I didn't want to be stubborn or unteachable, didn't want to hijack my writing career with my artistic ego. I decided to follow the advice of these people I respected, and I asked for God's help to do so. If we're using the sleeping metaphor, my female lead took the tranq needle, injected herself, and glared at me until her eyes closed. My male lead ... well, I would've had to hit him in the head with a brick, and he's a big guy. We called a hostile ceasefire.

I started a new, unrelated WIP. New cast. New speculative storyworld. Kind of cool plot, even. But my protagonist wasn't my Haven Seekers lead, so I didn't like him. My plot wasn't Haven Seekers Book Two, so I didn't care what happened next.

Another writer friend, Michelle, asked me a wise question. "Well, do you want you to be published? Or do you want Haven Seekers to be published?"

I'd never thought of it in those terms. After a minute or so, I said, "I want Haven Seekers to be published."

So ... I did something I can't advise any other writer to do. I ignored conventional wisdom. And I wrote Book Two.

I finished it in March this year. And I knew. The next step, the step I was finally ready for, was querying.

In the last two years, I'd learned a lot about this industry. Relationships matter. As it should be. Yet, as an introvert, that's my place of struggle. If I reach out to people because they would be a good industry contact, am I not being disingenuous, task-oriented rather than people-oriented? And how do I make myself likable to strangers (as opposed to silent and nervous)? And if I can't do that, will I ever rise above the slush pile of cold queries?

My friend and crit partner Erynn is one of the warmest people I know. She cares. She connects with people. She even Facebook-stalks published authors, but she's so non-creepy and Erynn about it, before long, she's made a real friend.

Right around the time I found out I had double semi-finaled in the 2012 Genesis Contest, Erynn and I were discussing her non-creepy stalker side, and I told her, "I need to learn how to do that ... except it's not something a person can learn."

A week later, the craziest thing to happen to me thus far in my life ... happened.

I was contacted by an agent. She'd seen my name twice on the Genesis semi-finals list. She wanted to know if I had procured representation yet.

I. Freaked. Out.

This couldn't be real. There had to be a catch (because, you know, God couldn't possibly be behind it ...). She couldn't possibly be a real, live agent who had searched the internet to find contact info for me.

I researched her and her agency. Jessica Kirkland. The Blythe Daniel Agency. They were real, and they were professional, and they had a lot of clients.

I responded. She responded. We talked on the phone.

When she asked about my two contest entries, I pitched Haven Seekers Book One. She liked the premise, asked about my other entry. I took a deep breath--This might be the end of her interest, I can't pitch anything else. My tone was probably apologetic. "It's the second book in the series. I just finished it."

"Oh!" Jessica said. "You have a series, that's great!"

Whoa. Hey, God, maybe You are behind this?

She asked for the full. The last week of April, she offered me representation. On May 4, I signed the contract.

Now I have an agent. Despite the fact that, if you actually read my two paragraphs of backstory, you'll count a total of only five query rejections. Despite the fact that I disobeyed logical advice from savvy writers in the Christian publishing industry. Despite the fact that approaching a group of people I don't know and saying, "Hi, could I join your conversation?" makes me short of breath.

God gave me this gift, though I don't in any way deserve it. I praise and thank His wondrous plan. While I was focusing on my less-than-ideal personality, God was saying, "Get over yourself, I've got this. You don't have to become an extrovert. I'm sending someone to you. In fact, I'm sending her next week."

I love Jessica already. I'm beyond excited to work with her. I know God has a great plan for both of us. He knows all the details. He knows the timing. He knows the plans He has for us.

So I can only close with this:

Now unto the King
the only wise God
be honour and glory
for ever and ever.

I Timothy 1:17 (KJV)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Unseen, Unsaid, Understood: Ancient Art vs. Modern Fiction

Egyptian Art 2

At one time, my sister was semi-obsessed with Egypt. She's the one who educated me on frontality, which depicts an artistic subject from the front (obviously), even when his pose is more conducive to a side view. Try to imitate the guy's pose to the left, and you'll see how unrealistic it is.

"It's pretty funny," my sister said. "It's like, if we can't see both his shoulders, he must not have two shoulders. If we can't see his belly button, he must not have one."

Ridiculous, right?

However, in fiction, some authors seem drawn to frontality, too. Nothing (not even cutesy character names) makes me put a book down faster than this. Frontality in fiction is the opposite of subtext. The opposite of subtlety. It seems to be most obvious in dialogue.

Real people don't say everything they mean, especially when emotions are high or when conversing with someone they've known a long time. The most effective, most beautiful dialogue in fiction is the stuff that doesn't tell all, doesn't spoonfeed.

Here's an example, from a TV show that shall remain nameless. I'll start with my paraphrased version, featuring lots of awful frontality.

"When I was twenty-two, I was playing minor league ball. I was pretty good at it, and all that potential fame and money went to my head. So when I had the opportunity to make some more money by throwing a few games, well, it was the wrong thing to do, but I did it anyway."
"I see."
"But when I got called up to the majors, it hit me just how wrong it was to be doing this. I told the man I'd never do it again. He told me I wasn't allowed to say that to him, and he proved it." 
"I don't understand what you mean by that. Care to explain?"
"I was threatened by phone calls and a car that followed me home a few nights. Finally, when I wouldn't give in, my girlfriend was murdered, shot and left in an alley. After hardly any investigation, the cops decided it was a mugging that went bad. They closed the case, stopped looking. I argued, but no one listened, because I didn't have any proof to tie the man to her murder."
"I'm sure this event had long-term effects on you."
"Yes. I realized that this kind of thing happens every day. People lose their lives and justice is never served. I could never get justice for my girlfriend, but maybe I can get justice for others. So I put my baseball bat away and became an officer of the law."

You might be laughing, but I bet you've read published novels or watched films with dialogue exactly like this. The reader/viewer has no opportunity to discover, to put pieces together, to feel smart. Worse, any emotional power this scene could have gets buried under a tell-it-all avalanche.

Then we have the real TV script.

"When I was twenty-two, um, I was playing minor league ball. And I threw a few games."
"For money?"
"Yeah. Then I got called up to the majors, and all that stopped. The guy I did it for didn’t let it go so easy."
"Some guys threatened me at first. And then my girlfriend was, um … The cops said it was a mugging that went bad. And … That’s--that’s how I went from playing a game to being a cop."

Dialogue like this makes me keep reading. So much isn't said, but I know it all, and I feel it all.

Your turn, fellow readers. Is subtlety (or lack thereof) something you notice while reading? If so, recommend us an author or a book that resists frontality and embraces subtext.