Sunday, July 29, 2012

Admit It . . . You've Judged a Cover

We've heard many times throughout our lives to never judge a book by its cover. Usually, we are referring to other people and what they look like on the outside as opposed to what they might be like on the inside. But the truth of the matter is that idiom really does pertain to what it's saying. We probably shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but the fact of the matter is that we all do. I know I do, and if you're an honest individual, then I think you'll agree that you do too.

But why? What compels us to pick up a book at a bookstore or click on an enhanced image on Amazon and say "no" even before we've read a snippet on what that book is about? Whether we want to admit it or not, we are very visual creatures. We enjoy the beauty of art that's had time put into it and is well done and tasteful. We want to put our money into something that can get us with just an image, and that is why a book cover can either make or break your novel in such a competitive market.

We've all seen the obscure, complicated, ridiculous, or just downright strange covers that some authors choose. When I see one that particularly looks bad, I shake my head and wonder what the author was even thinking in choosing an image like that on the cover. The sad part is that many self-published novels tend to have less than stellar artwork on the front. Just go over to Smashwords and do a cursory search and you'll see that almost every genre listed has a few hard-to-understand covers. (Personally, I have a hard time with the Fantasy category, but that just might be me.)

As readers, we look for certain things on our covers that will reflect the author's seriousness when it comes to his/her writing.


Many of us look for highly polished prose that doesn't drag on and on forever. Some prefer a quick-paced novel, but still, the quality of writing has to be good. The author needs to make his/her point and then move on. Does the cover need to convey the same feeling of quality? Yes. If you're writing a thriller, you want to make sure that the excitement your readers will feel when reading your story is felt the moment someone picks your book off the shelf. Michael Connelly's novel The Reversal was shortlisted for the 2011 ITW Thriller Award for the best hard cover novel. You tell me. Does the cover convey the quality of the writing one would find within?

Michael Connelly's
The Reversal
Personally, I think it's a nice, crisp, simple cover that conveys the genre Michael Connelly writes. It's not overdone with different images fighting for attention. The colors are basic and makes one think of a cold courtroom where justice will be dealt out. Since Connelly is a big name in the thriller genre, his name is more dominant than the title, but even so, it's clear what the title is and not shoved into a tiny size. A clean font that blends in with the cover is also a must. 

Here's another novel shortlisted in the 2011 ITW Thriller Awards. 

Brian Freeman's
The Burying Place
Not having read the blurb, I'm expecting a chilling discovery of dead bodies in a remote house along a river. It kind of scares the crap out of me just looking at it! But at least it's doing what it's supposed to do and that is to get the wheels in my head turning about what I might find under that cover.


A good cover will catch our attention because we simply enjoy that genre or those kinds of stories. As readers, we are drawn to universal themes, like with the two novels mentioned above, which deal with solving a crime and catching the bad guy. The same goes for war novels, romances, YA novels, and fantasy or sci-fi. Let's take the romance category for a moment. I can't think of one genre romance novel cover that doesn't look like the next. They are all very similar, but that's exactly what attracts the readers. How many do we come across that could be identical stories?

Jaci Burton's
Taking a Shot
Erin McCarthy's
Jacked Up
Other than the fact that these two men obviously enjoy different sports, it looks like both authors used the same model for the covers. And one would expect similar story lines, but as you can see, that's what the romance genre is all about. The covers need to bring in the readers with unspoken words. Both of these covers scream hot love, hot men . . . oh, and hot sports, whether it's on the ice or off. What do you think?


When a potential reader pulls a novel from the shelf they are already thinking and feeling what might happen in that story? What will pull them into this story? Will it be worth his/her while? Does it excite them? The cover needs to say a resounding "Yes!" Thrillers and romances have the market cornered when it comes to getting the buyers through the door. But what about other genres? One I repeatedly struggle with is the fantasy genre. Rarely do I see one that catches my eye. (I'll be honest and say that as soon as I read the back cover and see that it's fantasy, it usually goes right back on the shelf.) But there is so much going on in the fantasy world and it's such a mixed genre that a reader needs to know if vampires suck blood or dwarves walk around Middle-earth.

Do these covers convey what the author is offering the reader?

George R. R. Martin's
A Game of Thrones
(original cover)
J.R.R. Tolkien's
The Hobbit
(original cover)
Perhaps you're thinking I'm not being fair by using an older cover of The Hobbit, but think about it. If you had picked up this first edition from 1937, would it hold your interest enough to read it? This brings up another point -- sometimes novel covers just need a face lift as time passes.

Would either of these covers interest you more?

Updated Cover

One of many updated covers.

My guess would be yes. Original cover art can change over the years if the novel is a bestseller. In both cases with A Game of Thrones and The Hobbit, these covers have had numerous makeovers to appeal to the changing audiences, particularly The Hobbit. It was published in 1937 and in just a few short months will have a big box office release. If the film's producers and marketing department were to go with a very bland poster like the book's original cover, then not many moviegoers would be interested in seeing the film. A book like this, that has been around for readers of many different generations, will continue to have work done on its cover. The idea is to entice those who will read it ten, twenty, even fifty years from now.


How many times have you gone to see a film based off of the book, simply because you read the book first and you just couldn't wait to see how it was developed into a film? I think a majority of anyone reading this has. I know I have, although I tend to do the reverse. I'll see the movie first and then read the novel, mainly because I know the novel will have so many more juicy tidbits to share than the movie could fit into those two hours. But what's one of the main things we seek out first before going to see that film? The movie poster! It is one of the most solid pieces of advertising that studios have at their disposal. And if the book was a big hit, then that poster better darn well say the film will be a big hit. Notice how film studios use the basic building blocks of the novel cover when it comes to selling the film adaptations.

The Help
(the film)

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett
(original cover)

Notice the similarities between Stockett's novel and the movie poster: bright yellow, the bench and the wire, the separation of the birds as well as the women, and the purple used in the lettering. A movie goer would be hard pressed not to know that these two stories are one and the same.

The film
The book
Here's a more recent example with The Hunger Games book cover and movie poster. What exactly draws you in and makes you want to either see the film or read the book? Do you notice the same theme running throughout each one?

The color scheme says two things to me. First, this story will be dark. Whatever I'm expecting to discover in the story, I should at least know that it will have dark overtones. Second, the color scheme for both and the fact that there are arrows on the fronts of each one, I should expect some kind of war or fighting. Perhaps for justice? Perhaps for survival? Perhaps for just fun and games? But that should be enough to entice me to want to read more. Unlike the bright colors of The Help, The Hunger Games does not feel like a lighthearted story, and if that's what I'm looking for, then this cover and poster have done their jobs.

Are there any book covers or movie posters that have caught your eye and ended up making you read the story or see the film, or vice versa? Can you think of any cover art on a bestseller that just doesn't work? Are you struggling to come up with your own artwork that will help sell your novel?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Moral Relativism in Fiction*

Russian edition of Anna Karenina 
Would Anna Karenina have killed herself in the 21st Century?

Moral values change with time. They also vary according to religion, culture, geography and political inclination. Your inability to relate to a plot, or to the ending of a novel, may be linked to your own views and beliefs. So before you throw that book against the wall, consider the context of the novel and its author. Romantic relationships are not treated the same way by writers of different eras and cultures, and the fate of “forbidden” loves are dependent on the social conventions of their place and time.

I could never understand why Edith Wharton had chosen to keep Newland and Ellen apart at the end of The Age of Innocence. Hadn’t they suffered enough? (I even complained about it here). This past week, I finally understood her reasons. And I owe it all to Ronald Tobias’ 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them. (Thanks Stephanie for recommending it!)

Set in 1870’s New York, Newland Archer is engaged to May Welland. When May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, abandons her husband in Europe and moves to New York with the intention of divorcing him, May’s family is outraged. They recruit Newland to convince Ellen to go back to her husband and forget all about the divorce. Newland, however, becomes fascinated with Ellen and the two of them fall in love. But Newland is a man of honor and marries May nonetheless. Time doesn’t subdue his feelings for Ellen and he is determined to leave May for Ellen. That is, until May announces she’s pregnant. Ellen returns to Europe and Newland stays with May until she dies (twenty-six years later!) Already an old man, Newland and his son visit Paris, where Ellen now lives. Newland’s son insists they visit her, but Newland refuses to go to her apartment and walks away.

According to Tobias, forbidden loves never end up happily and the lovers must “pay their overdue bill to society” (most of the time with death). “Society, it seems, never loses.” (Tobias, pg.224)  Since divorce was condemned during Wharton’s lifetime, she couldn’t have given her protagonists a happy ending even though both were free to be together.

For a modern viewer, the notion that divorce would have been punished with unhappiness seems unconceivable (at least in the Western world). For us, the power of love should trample appearances and societal norms. “Love conquers all” has become the mantra of most works of fiction. Perhaps if a contemporary author had written The Age of Innocence, Newland and Ellen would have been together in the end.

The Unfaithful Wife

Historically, women have been punished harshly for being unfaithful. Literature has set an example with stern consequences for this transgression. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina are the most common cases of study. In both instances, their punishment was death.

But there were other, more subtle, penalties for women who betrayed their marital vows in fiction. In Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil (1925), Kitty marries Doctor Walter Fane out of convenience. Walter is devoted to Kitty, but she is bored with him and has an affair with the charming Charles Townsend. When Walter finds out about the affair, he takes his wife to a cholera-infested village in China to punish her. With illness and death around her, Kitty goes through a transformation and realizes how altruistic her husband is. But she never falls in love with him. Walter dies and Kitty returns to Hong Kong, where once again she falls under Townsend’s charms. This encounter disgusts her (she had been welcomed by Townsend’s wife into their home). Kitty returns to England and devotes her life to her son and father. But she never knows real love and has lost her dignity and self-respect.

In the 2006 film version, starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, the director gives Kitty a second chance. During her time in the Chinese village, Kitty not only matures and helps the sick, but she also falls in love with Walter, who eventually forgives her. (He never does in the original novel.) Kitty and Walter have a few days of bliss and love, but like in the book, Walter succumbs to the disease. A redeemed Kitty returns to London where, years later, she runs into Townsend. She is courteous but indifferent, and when her son asks who that man is, she answers “no one important.” In this version, Kitty also loses Walter, but she gained his love, his forgiveness and her dignity.

In The Painted Veil,  Dr. Walter Fane has no pity for his unfaithful wife.

In Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961), both spouses are unfaithful. But infidelity is not the central issue in this novel. The biggest problem for the couple is that April wants an abortion and Frank doesn’t. In the end, April dies after getting an abortion “home kit” and doing it herself. The reader is left to wonder if Yates was making a comment about illegal abortion or April’s death was a punishment for her actions.   

More recent unfaithful wives in fiction are Connie in Unfaithful (2002) and Sheila in Elin Hilderbrand’s A Summer Affair (2008).

In the film Unfaithful, Connie (Diane Lane) has lost her passion for her husband and engages in an affair with a French bookseller she finds irresistible. When her husband, Edward (Richard Gere) discovers the betrayal, he accidentally kills Connie’s lover. In this case, it is not the wife who pays, but the husband and the lover because in the end, it is apparent that Edward is going to turn himself in to the police.

In A Summer Affair, another wife with an illicit relationship (Sheila) gets a pass. Not only is the lover portrayed in a favorable light (he is a generous millionaire who appreciates Sheila’s artistic talent more than her husband) but also, Sheila’s husband never finds out about the affair. Sheila regrets her indiscretion and goes back to her normal life.

These two modern versions of the contemporary cheating wife are diametrically opposite to the past anti-heroines who paid dearly for their betrayals.

Forbidden Loves

Nowadays, the subject of cousin marriage has become controversial in the United States (and this aversion seems to be expanding to other countries as well). But for centuries, inbreeding was a common practice in society (and in some cultures, it still is).

In the 80’s Colombian soap opera, Gallito Ramirez, the protagonist is a low-class boxer who falls in love with his spoiled and rich first cousin, La Niña Mencha, not knowing that they’re family. When the truth of Ramirez’s origins comes to light, the biggest obstacle for their marriage is still their social status, not their blood ties. If this story had been written by a contemporary American writer, would the couple have split at the end? In Colombia, the fact that they were cousins was not an obstacle for them to stay together.

Colombians have never been afraid of controversies. In 1988, they released Caballo Viejo (literally “Old Horse,” but the title comes from a popular Venezuelan song). The story explores not one, but two taboos. The protagonist, Epifanio del Cristo Martínez, is an old (and not very attractive) man who falls in love with Nora Márquez, a young, beautiful woman who happens to be his niece. The twist is that Nora, despite having the attention of better looking and younger men, also falls in love with her uncle.

With humor and a touch of magic realism, their relationship flourishes, but like most May-December romances in the last 30+ years, their love is doomed and one of the characters (usually the older one) perishes.

Uncle and niece fall in love in the Colombian telenovela, Caballo Viejo (1988)

What a contrast with the fiction of earlier centuries or even the first half of the twentieth century where  romances between younger women and older men were ideal. Just take a look at Little Women (1868), Daddy Long Legs (1912) or Pygmalion (1913).

Priests and nuns in love

Another taboo is that of Catholic priests who fall in love. Perhaps the most iconic case is Father Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds (1977). Not only was Ralph and Meggie’s love doomed from the start, but also Meggie ‘paid’ for her forbidden love by losing those she loved the most: her two most beloved brothers, her father, and worst yet, the son Ralph fathered. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the love of her life, Ralph, also dies.

But Colleen McCullough was kind to her priest in love. She built a very human and conflicted character. He loved Meggie and was kind and (somewhat) generous, but he was also ambitious and loved the power the cassock gave him.

A more negative (and more recent) portrayal of a priest in love was rendered in the 2002 Mexican film El Crimen del Padre Amaro, a film so controversial they almost banned it in Mexico. The young priest Amaro is initially a positive character who only wants to do the right thing in his new parish. He meets the beautiful Amelia, a catechism teacher who confesses she’s having fantasies about him. Amaro cannot fight the temptation and gives in to his desires, resulting in Amelia’s pregnancy and subsequent abortion. In the end, it is Amelia who pays for Amaro’s mistakes with death. Amaro becomes as corrupt as the rest of the clergy in town.

Whereas priests in love never have happy endings in fiction, nuns are a different story.

Sister Maria in The Sound of Music (1965) is not only encouraged by the Mother Superior to leave the order and marry Captain von Trapp, but the nuns even attend her wedding ceremony.

The same happens in the Mexican production Mundo de Juguete (1974-1977) where the nun Rosario falls in love with the father of one of her students and marries him.

Why do you think this double-standard exists in fiction?

From all these examples we can conclude two things:
  1. The consequences of a behavior considered immoral or reprehensible vary from one culture/country/era to another.
  2. The perception of what constitutes a forbidden relationship also depends on the variables mentioned above.
As authors we have a lot of power. Not only are we the puppeteers of our fictitious worlds, we’re also judges and representatives of the viewpoints of our era. Isn’t that something.

Here comes the big question for writers (especially of historical fiction): Do we honor the cultural and social reality of the times we’re portraying or do we become anachronistic in order to appeal to a modern audience? Do you think it’s possible for an author to remain impartial about a moral issue? Can you think of novels or films you couldn’t relate to because of your incongruent views?

*This article contains spoilers for the following novels/films: The Age of Innocence, The Painted Veil, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Revolutionary Road, Unfaithful, A Secret Affair, The Thorn Birds, El Crimen del Padre Amaro, The Sound of Music and the telenovelas: Mundo de Juguete, Gallito Ramirez and Caballo Viejo.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Kick-Ass Girls, Conniving Witches and Submissive Whores: Images of Feminine Power in Contemporary Fiction.

Recently, a friend of mine announced to me in an excited voice that finally literature had given up on stereotypical portrayals of women.   When I expressed surprise at her statement, she mentioned Stieg Larssen’s Lisbeth Salander as a mold-breaking protagonist who encompasses feminist values. I shrugged away her comments. I can hardly think of a tattooed hacker as a role model and the more I look around I find heroines in mainstream and genre novels still shaped according to old-fashioned masculine fantasies and girlish fears.

I know that, despite my protestations, many do see in Lisbeth Salander an ideal heroine, one that leases female and masculine readers alike.  After all, she is modern men’s fantasy girl. Thin, lean, flexible of body and covered with tattoos and piercings, she fulfills contemporary notions of feminine beauty. She is a computer wiz, fiercely independent, and she “kicks ass.” Moreover, at an age where most men seem to get excited at the sight of girls necking with each other, Lisbeth is bisexual. She doesn´t need men, she doesn’t want to be supported by men, she doesn´t demand protection or commitment. Even women could be attracted to her because she tramples on everything that makes us weak: romantic love, dependency, fear of physical or sexual violence and a legal system that is not always kind to the female sex.

If Lisbeth is the ideal contemporary heroine then her complete opposite should be Anastasia Steele, the flaky protagonist of the Shades of Grey trilogy. Since Shades could only be classified as erotica, it´s sad to know that, in 2012, the genre still uses clichés created by the Marquis de Sade in the 18th century. Like De Sade’s Justine, virginal Anastasia surrenders completely to a handsome rake who abuses her to his heart’s contentment.

 Anastasia agrees to become millionaire Christian Grey´s sexual slave only because he is sexy, good-looking and wealthy. Hey! After all isn’t that what women crave? Gorgeous dude, great in bed and a good provider? But those attributes don´t cloak the fact that Shades is a remake of the old rape fantasy. More than a female fantasy, Shades is the sum of all feminine fears.

In fantasy rape, the fantasists always enjoyed the act, and so does Anastasia. She derives pleasure from Christian´s abuse even when it evolves into sexual violence. Because, despite what its advocates claim, the multiple BSDM scenarios in the book could only be describe as violent. In a milder scene that takes place inside an elevator, Christian tugs Anastasia’s hair while kissing her roughly. She relishes it! I would be gouging the eyes of any creature that messes with my hair!

Many try to sell BDSM erotica as examples of “women empowerment.”  I can’t think how being spanked, mocked and tied-up constitutes “empowerment” especially since Anastasia not only enjoys her “master’s” attentions. She is also getting regular injections of cash that swells her bank account. Yes, the submissive whore stereotype is doing quite well in the bestsellers list.

What really blew my mind about 50 Shades of Grey were not its idiotic protagonists, but the fact that it was based on the author´s fan fiction...about Twilight! I can´t picture chivalrous Edward pulling a tampon off Bella’s vagina, but obviously E.L. James does, and so do the detractors of Stephanie Meyer's saga who claim that Bella is a “submissive” heroine. Odd, I must have read another story because she didn’t strike me as such. What I did notice is that Bella and Sookie Stackhouse of Charlene Harris’ vampire stories are damsels in distress, always in need of werewolf and blood-suckers paramours to come to their rescue. It gives the impression that paranormal romances are all about frail heroines. Does that apply to the Fantasy genre in general?

Unprecedented literary success has brought George R.R. Martin a nice bunch of critics, feminists among then. For a couple of  entries in my Fantasy Blog I found and read several articles discussing different aspects of Martin´s misogyny and the negative handling of feminine characters and female power in his Song of Ice and Fire. Some critics seem to resent the fact that Martin’s strong, independent women like Melisandre, the sexy conniving witch, and Cersei, the sexy conniving queen, are portrayed as evil.

Critics, and not only feminists, have the bad habit of imposing modern moral standards upon historical fiction or fantasy texts. Martin´s women, good and bad, are pretty strong for the barbaric patriarchal world they inhabit. And because it is Epic Fantasy, Martin even includes an ancient archetype, the kick-ass, cross-dressing, warrior maiden, Lisbeth Salander’s medieval equivalent. The saga is pitted with girls that dress like men and fight like men such as Arya Stark, Asha (Yara in the TV series) Greyjoy, Ygrette, the Wilding, and, my favorite, Brienne of Tarth.

Born a lady, Brienne’s plainness (and the fact that she is taller and stronger than the knights in her realm) makes her unlikely marriage material. So she trains to be a knight. When she falls in love with King Renly, she goes to his court to serve him as a squire- bodyguard, knowing he could never reciprocate her feelings (aside from being married, Renly is gay).) What´s interesting about Brienne is that she kills men, is very skillful with her sword, and is terribly strong, but she is far from a virago. For someone who dresses like a man, she is quite feminine. She is shy, sensitive, naïve and she loves troubadour’s songs as much as Sansa Stark (Westeros epitome of refined femininity) does.

Like Lisbeth Salander, she hurts men who hurt women, but unlike The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Brienne is not a stone wall: she cries, feels sorry for Jaime (with whom she is obviously falling in love) and appreciates the positive aspects of her sex as when she pledges her service to Catelyn claiming to admire Lady Stark's “woman’s courage.”

It is interesting that Martin shows women as both destroying and creating forces, as helpers as well as enemies of the men that love them. Curious, because modern literature insists in presenting women as connivers and bringers of sorrow.  In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, poor Robbie Turner is destroyed by two women, one he loves, one who loves him. Robbie has been aided in his studies by the Tallis Family, his mother´s employer. However, in the closely structured British class system, he is constantly reminded of his place, especially by Cecilia, the Tallis eldest daughter. On the other hand, he befriends little Bryony, Cecilia´s sister, a precocious would-be-writer who develops a crush on him.

After seeing half-naked Cecilia taking a dunk in the garden’s fountain, tumescent Robbie writes an embarrassing letter describing his feelings towards her. Bryony finds the letter and is shocked by Robbie’s sexually explicit language. She sublimates her jealousy into fear by making herself believe Robbie is a deranged pervert. After seeing him and her sister making love, Bryony is convinced he is dangerous, and when her cousin gets raped in the woods, Bryony accuses Robbie, who is sent to jail. Although Cecilia believes in his innocence and stands by him, there is a sense that her bewitching beauty caused Robbie’s downfall and that his life could have been much better if he had never met these dangerous sisters.

We can’t accuse Ian McEwan of being impartial to women when female authors play the same game. In 2001, the same year that Atonement came out, Philippa Gregory published The Other Boleyn Girl a fictionalized view of Henry the Eighth’s second marriage.  The plot follows Ann and Mary Boleyn’s rivalry for the love of King Henry who casts away loving Mary in order to marry her ambitious sister. For some reason, most novelists tend to be unfair to Ann Boleyn. Indeed she meddled in politics and religious affairs, but she was also a patron of the arts, and no more ambitious than most high-class ladies of her day. Her sister Mary had several lovers before getting into King Henry’s bed, and by the time Ann came to Court, her royal affair was over.

In the book, Ann and Mary are loving sisters despite their different characters. Anne is strong-minded and rebellious. As he mother puts it, she is used to get what she wants just by “stomping her little feet on the ground.” Sweet and obedient Mary is happy to be married to a not very bright young squire. Henry visits the Boleyn Manor and Thomas Boleyn pushes a very willing Ann into the king’s path. Although Henry is taken by her beauty, he resents Ann´s facetious willfulness and sets his eyes on demure Mary. When the men in her family (including her own husband) prod Mary into the royal bed, she has no option but to comply. Eventually she falls in love with the king, who enjoys her meekness, thus she becomes his submissive whore, but not for long. By the time Mary is bedridden with pregnancy, Ann is back.

With ruthless ambitious and cruel vindictiveness, Ann does everything in her power to lure Henry away from her sister. Se does not want just to be a mistress; she becomes queen by withholding her sexual favors from the king. Driven by lust, Henry divorces Catherine of Aragon, Mary is forgotten, but Ann never gets her husband´s love. Her willful ways, constant tantrums and inability to provide him with an heir, soon bore the King who has Ann put on trial. The many charges include sorcery since only under her conniving spells could the King have committed so many follies.

Ann loses her head for being a tempting witch while her sister fares better; Mary keeps her life and fades into oblivion. The novel seems to have two morals:  is better to be a submissive whore than a bewitching sorceress, and when it comes to men, women will trample upon their own sisters. After glancing over these images of “powerful “women, I rather stick with Lisbeth Salander.

Could you think of examples in recent literature of female protagonists that are good role models? What about your heroines? How do you make them strong yet appealing?

Malena (Formerly known as Violante)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Writing from Life

During a writing workshop I took not too long ago, one of my classmates submitted an excerpt from a piece he was working on: a memory of his, which he’d embellished and turned into a story. It was a ghost story, and we’ll leave off for the moment that the “ghost” bit was something he believed was reality. The problem I had with the opening scene was the dog’s name.
“I don’t think ‘Smoodgy’ really matches the feel you’re going for here,” I said.
“But it was really his name,” he said.
“Right. But this is fiction, so you can change the name.”
“But why should I?”
“Because it’s a ghost story, and that name lightens the mood. I don’t think you want a light mood here.”
He stared at me. “It was really his name.”
I gave up at that point. But the student’s difficulty in deciding which real bits to keep, and which bits to change for the sake of the scene, was all too common. I face similar problems with my own work, only it’s much easier to spot it in other writers’ stories.

But Cujo really looked like this!
Our own lives are the richest source of material we have for fiction. Even the most out-there spec-fiction writer is drawing from her experience in some way or another. But stories that very closely mirror reality can still legitimately be called “fiction”: it’s up to the writer (within reason) to decide. It seems to me that as long as names and details are changed to protect others’ privacy, it’s totally legit to present memoir as fiction – though not the other way around.

At the moment, I am most moved to write about my own life, probably because I’ve been reading a lot of microscopic navel-gazing autobiographical fiction. Suddenly that thing that happened in fourth grade with the large boy who pretended he was the Incredible Hulk until we all ganged up on him and literally kicked him as he lay howling Hulkishly on the ground … it seems like fodder for a good story. It begs to be fictionalized. But I have to keep some caveats in mind:

Don’t be too literal. It doesn’t matter what really happened. Reality is merely a suggestion here. To break yourself out of reality, deliberately change at least one thing about the story before you even start: change the sex of a major player, change the setting, change the year. This will help you break out of the mode of “memoir” and release yourself into “fiction.” This is important because real life is messy and, frankly, mostly pointless; stories, on the other hand, must be meaningful and organized in order to be emotionally satisfying.

Don’t be vague. Writers who tell a story that really happened to them may forget that the reader wasn’t there. They make assumptions, letting the reader fill in the blanks. Don’t forget to provide details. Describe the setting, describe how the people looked, describe the time period. You can always go back and edit things out if you’ve overdescribed, but get the details clear first.

Don’t mistake ‘anecdote’ for ‘story’:  Many of us have been warned against “slice of life” stories, but we don’t really know what that means. It means you don’t have conflict. All you have is description. A curious event is not a story, quirky people are not stories. You have to have problem. If there was none in your anecdote, make it up: conflict is the heart of every story.

This is not you
Don’t portray yourself as a saint: Stories in which we star have a major potential pitfall: we make ourselves look way too good. In that anecdote about the Hulk Boy, I would be sorely tempted to make myself the person who did none of the kicking; especially since I was bullied myself, I certainly don’t want to tell everyone about what a horrid little mutant I was that day. But that fact may be the heart of the story: it’s more interesting to be behind the spectacles of the nice person who makes a terrible decision than to observe a nice person just … being nice. If your anecdote has you being heroic or merely passive, change it. Switch POVs, if you need to: write the story from the most dynamic person’s viewpoint.

Don’t implicate real people: I touched on this before, but if your characters are based on real people, change enough things about those people so nobody can tell who they are. As Violante mentioned in her post on Romans-à-clef, Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada was widely assumed to be based on Anna Wintour, the very real Vogue editor. You can get away this kind of thinly-disguised character assassination, probably, but it’s safer and kinder to disguise your characters thoroughly. It will also make high-school reunions and family Thanksgivings less awkward.

An addendum to this “Don’t” is the flipside “Don’t be afraid to write about real people.” Someone told me she recently trashed all her journal entries about one crazy family she’s been peripherally involved with, because she was afraid the information might somehow get out and cause problems. I thought this was a terrible shame; she's been telling me these stories, and they’re quite colorful. All she needs to do is hide the identifying details. I’ve been afraid to write about my own (significantly less crazy) family, for fear of causing rifts. But writers need to write. As long as you are protecting people’s privacy, don’t stop yourself from writing a good story, for any reason. At least get the words down: you can always vet the story before publication, if you are so lucky as to get a publication offer.

Now that the Don’ts are over, let’s focus on the Dos: much more fun. (For a more thorough exploration of these, see “Turning Life IntoFiction,” by Robin Hemley.)

Keep a journal: Writers are usually more observant than the average person, by nature, but you can train up this quality by keeping a writer’s observation journal. Notice conversations, jot down memories, describe scenes. Not only does this sharpen your perception skills, but the notes may later serve as filler for your stories. An anecdote or fragment of a dream may even be the seed for a complete story. Writing every day also keeps you in the habit of, well, writing every day.

Scenes from life
Experiment with form: Since this is a post about turning life into fiction, I’ll skip the memoir and focus on short story vs. novel. My favorite autobiographical fiction form is the short story: it allows for a more impressionistic approach. If you go on like that in a novel, you’re likely to bore the reader: there has to be more conflict and more action in a novel. The downside of the short story is that you have to be extremely economical with language: every little word counts. The short story also tends to be less character-focused, since you don’t have time to develop the characters except in rough portrait. Description reigns.

Although I have no stats on this, it seems to me that short stories are making a comeback: Several writers of note (such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, Alice Munro, and Michael Chabon) have put out recent short story collections that have done well. These stories are typically not big clever ideas with a twist, but meditations on the everyday. You get the feeling they are highly autobiographical. On the novel side, I recently finished Justin Torres’s beautiful, luminous little gem, We the Animals, which is based partly (mostly? entirely?) on his childhood. The slim little book barely registers as a novel, though, and took him – by his own admission  five years to complete. Sometimes, the more of ourselves we pour into a story, the harder it is to write. Worth keeping in mind.

Focus: Because life is messier than fiction is allowed to be, we need to impose structure on our autobiographical fiction. This has been, as my sisters know, my biggest struggle. I almost feel unqualified to talk about it, but let me pass on Hemley’s advice: pick one aspect of your story to focus on: character, theme, setting, or Big Event. He gives examples: Nick in The Great Gatsby is an example of the narrator as observer, telling the story from a distance. In Gone with the Wind, the focus is on Tara, the estate. Setting is primary there. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar uses theme (the titular bell jar) to organize her autobiographical work. The Big Event focuses on one cataclysm, such as the big-game hunt in Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, or the suicide that forms the framework for my own WIP.

If you’re like me, you look at that list and think, well, each of those aspects is vital. How can I possibly zero in on one? I suppose they key is not to exclude the others, but to make one the hook, the center of gravity around which the others revolve. Certainly Gone with the Wind has strong characters, and The Great Gatsby has a Big Event, but the stories spin around one axis. Think of which axis your story really spins around: that can be your organizational guide.

How much of your own writing stems from your experience? What advantages and pitfalls have you encountered when trying to write about your life? How have you overcome them?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Powerful Pull of Superheroes

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone
in the latest and greatest version
of Spiderman.

Lately, I've been very intrigued by the comic book and graphic novel industry. Recently, I took a trip to Paris and, out of curiosity, I wanted to see if the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysées was still in business (considering how so many forms of entertainment have gone digital). For me, it was a trip down memory lane, being a poor broke English assistant, I spent many hours with headphones on listening to the latest CDs on the market. (Wow, do I feel old!) Of course, the store had changed and things had been rearranged but, to my surprise, the top floor was dedicated to a café, a small pricey area filled with expensive writing utensils and... comic books and graphic novels. I'm talking walls and rows of comics and graphic novels I'd never heard of and some that have been around for years. All I could think was, "Who reads these?" because I certainly don't. I didn't take a photo to share, but click here if you'd like to see what it looks like.

A few months back I wrote a guest post entitled "The Year of the Superhero," and quite frankly I wrote it because I've noticed how saturated movie theaters have become when it comes to movies about superheroes. By the end of this summer, there will have been five superhero movies released already this year. Marvel Comics alone has a new comic book on stands every Wednesday. Not being a comic book reader, that sure shocked the pants off of me!

And I'm also curious as to why so many people get pulled into these stories. There obviously has to be a market for both comic books and graphic novels if they are getting published on a very regular basis since their popularity exploded in 1939. So, I went in search of some answers.

First, let's start by defining the difference between comic books and graphic novels. According to Graphic, here is how they define both mediums:
❝Graphic novels are, simply defined, book-length comics. Sometimes they tell a single, continuous narrative from first page to last; sometimes they are collections of shorter stories or individual comic strips. Comics are sequential visual art, usually with text, that are often told in a series of rectangular panels. Despite the name, not all comics are funny. Many comics and graphic novels emphasize drama, adventure, character development, striking visuals, politics, or romance over laugh-out-loud comedy.❞
But what is it about these storylines, with their comically dressed masked men and women and bubbles of words floating about their heads? Why do we need superheroes in our lives?
The Phantom

One of the longest running comics still on the market is The Phantom, the first ever superhero to grace the pages of a newspaper. He doesn't have any supernatural powers like those who followed in his footsteps (i.e. Superman, Spiderman, The Green Lantern, Wonderwoman, etc.), but rather relies upon his natural powers and skills like Batman, Black Widow, and Iron Man. In an informal and unscientific conversation with my husband who used to be quite the fanboy back in the day (and in some ways still is), I asked him what he enjoys about superheroes in general. Do those with supernatural powers outweigh those without? Do the female superheroes need to be sexy in order to draw the male public in? And the stories -- are they any good?

For my husband, The Punisher is his favorite. If you can remember back to the films that have been made, then you'll know they didn't fare too well at the box office. But it's the guns and the vendetta The Punisher has that makes him relatable to the reading public (or mainly to men). He's an antihero of sorts, one who goes after the criminals with any type of war weaponry available. He stands up for the little guy. And, perhaps, there in lies the key. Will any given superhero stand up for Plain Jane and Average Joe when the going gets tough? He pretty much has to if he wants the public to love him.

Here is a list of other characteristics many superheroes share:

  • Intelligent
  • Wears a Costume (I can't think of one who doesn't.)
  • Athletic
  • Role Model
  • Has a Weakness (Kryptonite, anyone?)
  • Has an Arch Enemy
  • Secret Identity (alter ego)
  • Love Interest (i.e. Mary Jane, Lois Lane, any one of Bruce Wayne's women)
  • Has a Goal
  • Special Powers (not necessarily supernatural powers)
  • Earns Respect
  • Has a sidekick
  • Unique
  • Uses Gadgets
  • Has a Lair or Hideout
  • Interesting Past (this is what motivates him in his quests)
  • Vehicle (i.e. the Batmobile, Iron Man's suit, the cool plane the X-Men use)
  • Determined
  • Strong
  • Brave
That's quite a list, but every single one of them is true. What would Superman be like if not for kryptonite weakening his powers? Batman needs his Batcave, right? And don't forget that gadgets are a must for Iron Man.

Overall, I think what most look for in a superhero is whether or not he is incredible in some extraordinary way and yet is very human and relatable to what is going on in one's life. My husband prefers those who don't possess a supernatural power because they are just like you and me. Take a look at Bruce Wayne. He has this dark past that makes him human on many different levels, but when the sun goes down, he goes out and hunts down the bad guys. At the same time most comic book and graphic novel readers enjoy the badassery of all superheroes, even the somewhat antiheroes like V from V for Vendetta. He's out there cleaning up the streets using his terrorist tactics to fight against his totalitarian government, but also keeping a cozy existence underground enjoying the simpler things in life like music and books. Superman has impressive powers, but at the same time he's just a boy who grew up on a farm and works as a reporter for his day job. You can't get more basic than that, can you?

Sometimes a superhero never
connects with the audience, like
with The Green Hornet.
But, sometimes a superhero's story just doesn't connect with the public. The most recent occurrence of this is with the 2011 release of The Green Hornet starring Seth Rogen and Jay Chou. My first thought when this film was released was "Who thought Seth Rogen could play a superhero?" (Personally, I think he lacks some of that "athletic" skill mentioned in the list above.) And many critics mirrored my thoughts. Roger Ebert didn't mince words when he said, "The Green Hornet is an almost unendurable demonstration of a movie with nothing to be about." Mike LaSalle from The San Francisco Chronicle had this to say:
"No one loved it into existence. No one had a feels less like an adaptation of The Green Hornet than a series of vague gestures on a 'Green Hornet' theme. In the place of the basic elements of storytelling, the movie offers vacancy."
In truth, consumers of comic books and graphic novels don't want to spend their money on some vague story that offers no satisfaction in return. They want to see the hero overpower the villain. They want to see what drives that character to go on a vigilante quest. They want to know what weakens the superheroes strengths and how that superhero devises a plan to get around such obstacles. The reader wants to feel his/her own vindication in the end, and, of course, there needs to be a hook to push that reader into buying the next installment in the series.

After all, what Mike LaSalle has to say at the end of his review is very true indeed:
"It's strange, but even in an action comedy, if the audience doesn't care whether the protagonist gets killed, it's a big problem. Without that one human element, all the carefully orchestrated action becomes mere commotion -- and sleep inducing."
Keep that in mind. We don't want to become noise in a reader's ear, to the point that he/she stops reading our work. Any writer needs to make the reader care about that main character -- no matter what genre you write!

Are you a comic book/graphic novel reader? If so, what's your favorite and why? Do you feel that any of the longstanding stories have jumped the shark and you just won't read them anymore? Do you feel the films ever measure up to what's written in the books?