Monday, December 14, 2015

Releasing a Book!

I have been both dreading and loving that it's finally time to post this.

Dreading, because holy space ducks, guys, I've wanted to release a book forever, but what if it sucks? Seriously. What if it's the sort of terribad that makes my friends avoid me because the book might come up in conversation? This is a genuine fear - in my top three fears at least. Right after drowning and those skin-swimming scarabs from The Mummy.

Loving, because I've had such a wealth of seriously awesome people help me with this book the whole way. Releasing it almost feels like a fulfilled promise. Like, hey, I'm not a total hack, guys, see? I'm totally putting this out there! Your feedback really meant something! After years of feedback, tinkering, and encouragement, I'm super stoked to share this story with everyone.

So it's an emotional mixed bag. But also an awesome bag. 

And somewhere in this badly conceived bag analogy is the announcement that my debut YA science fiction novel, Overshadowed, will be released March 2016!



Overshadowed is like Star Wars meets Avatar: The Last Airbender, and if you like epic space operas, incidental diversity, sympathetic villains, and EXPLOSIONS, you might be interested in taking a peek at the blurb, first page, and first chapter link below!

Book Blurb:

Fourteen months ago, the Igador System's council government finally achieved peace with its personal brand of space pirate - the Sinosian Raiders. Coexistence was short-lived, and now Igador is devastated as the raiders use fourteen months' worth of peace tax collections to launch a full scale invasion.

Driven from her home planet by the catastrophic raid, seventeen-year-old Tayel flees to a council-run refugee camp. No one is permitted to leave, no one shares progress on the invasion, and worst of all, refugee shuttles stop flying in, removing her chance of reuniting with anyone from home. So when a battle-hardened woman shunned by the camp for her Sinosian attire warns Tayel of the Council's corruption, Tayel seriously considers the woman's offer of help to escape. The terms seem fair enough: help steal a ship drive from the secured government docks to power up an escape vessel, and get a free ticket out of a camp-turned-processing-line for something darker than Tayel can imagine.

First Page (ARC*):

Tayel hurried through the undercity smog, her gas mask rattling with every breath. She smacked the filter cartridge, but the centimeter-wide hole in the tubing still hissed as she inhaled. Stupid thing. Pollution burned the back of her throat. She coughed, and Jace – huffing and puffing – sped up to reach her side. He grabbed the loose fabric of her jacket and pulled her forward. Together, they rounded the corner where the neon sign over the grocer’s mart flickered, dispersing light through the haze. One more block to Otto’s. Pick up the pace.
Bustling city denizens fresh off the after-work tram slowed them on the main street. The cacophony of rasping gas masks drowned out Tayel’s leak and pounding pulse. She gagged at the sour taste along her tongue. Nothing mattered more than the hope of fresh air. Fresh air, and safety.
Two more shops down, and there it was. Neon tubing spelled out “OTTO’S” in crooked letters above the shop, washing Tayel’s arm in green light as she reached for the door. She pushed inside, holding it open only long enough for Jace to hurry in after her.
She steadied herself while the door she’d come from and the door ahead clicked. A sharp sucking sound gave way to a rush of wind as the airlock triggered. She tore off the mask, freeing her dull red hair to fall in sticky waves around her face. Against the opposite wall, Jace removed his own mask and smoothed his ruffled head feathers down with his talons. She eyed him for injuries. She’d seen Argels break their beaks from a misplaced elbow in a crowd, but he seemed fine. At least he’d fared better than her.


*What is an ARC?
ARC stands for Advanced Reader Copy. It means that the material I'm sharing isn't in its final stage and is subject to change before the release date.

So that's that! If you like what you see, consider subscribing to my mailing list (accessible via the side bar) for spam-free information on the cover reveal, pre-orders, and more!

Monday, November 9, 2015

How to Set Up a Mailing List













Learn from my trials, fellow geeks.

Any writer who has seriously looked into launching a career as an author has stumbled across the pinnacle of writerly career advice that is platform building. Taken one step further, us article-devouring aspirees have seen the advice, "build a mailing list", more times than one. Or five. Or five hundred.

And that's because mailing lists are awesome. They're a direct lifeline from you to your willing audience; a crowd (and in this case, three sometimes really is a crowd) of people who have voluntarily, willingly asked you for news and updates. Nurturing a spam-free, informative, fun newsletter is a great way to gather fans and get information directly to them.

Step 1: Decide on a Service Provider

If you're building a list, it should be through a reputable provider, and if you've read many of the aforementioned platform building articles on the web, you've probably heard about MailChimp, AWeber, or even GetResponse. There are other companies out there, but these three are the most reputable.

There are a number of comparative articles on these, but here are two of the best I've found that led to my decision:

  1. AWeber vs MailChimp: Which is Better Suited for Building Your List?
  2. How to Pick an Email Provider: MailChimp vs. AWeber vs. GetResponse
I picked MailChimp for a few reasons, mainly the easy-to-understand payment model and the usability of their campaign design system. What's important is that you pick whatever looks best to you, and that's going to vary by person. Some people may want the extra customer service of AWeber's paid subscription model, others may want something free and easy to use. Familiarize yourself with the options, pick one that works best for you, and don't be afraid to take advantage of free trials. You can always change later if you need to.

Step 2: Setting up the Business

Due to strict EU Anti-Spam laws (which most email list providers - like MailChimp - adhere to), anyone who subscribes to your list is able to see your business address. 

And yep, that's right; if you happen to be an individual author, making a business out of the internet, a book or two, and hope, your business address probably isn't some megastructure in downtown San Francisco. Nope, your business address is your personal address.

If you're anything like me, and the idea of having a bunch of internet strangers see where you live is horrifically unbearable, then you're going to want to set up a PO Box before proceeding.

If you're in the US, you can find PO Box Application information through the USPS website. Essentially, you want the smallest box, and to get it, you're going to have to provide a photographic ID, a non-photographic ID (I used a current lease), and a payment either quarterly, biannually, or annually.

If all that goes smoothly, you'll have a PO Box to use as your business address instead of your home, and even with all the super duper nice people on the internet out there, this bit of extra safety is at the very least a sound idea.

Step 3: Making and Maintaining that List

Now that you're all set up, it's time to build your list! While every provider will allow you to do the following in different ways, these are the steps I went through, and what I would recommend for any author just starting their list:
  • Automated Welcome. I created a list using MailChimp's automated workflow (paid service), so that every time someone subscribes, they get a message from me. It's better than signing up for something, getting nothing in return, and then forgetting about it later.
  • Signup Form. You want people to signup for that list you worked so hard to setup, right? All services have an embedding option so you can put a form on your blog or website (like mine in the sidebar!).
  • A Schedule. While there's no need to share a newsletter release schedule with your subscribers, having one for yourself isn't a bad idea. When are you going to release info? What info will it be? Be aware that lists without frequent (at least three months) send-outs run the risk of going stale, which can create sending errors down the line.
And that's all there is to it. Well, at a high level, but the minutia of creating individual campaigns is over half the fun, so get out there, set up a list, and get to it! Oh, and if you like Story Geek or any of the stories I've written, consider signing up for my mailing list. I've got some big news coming, and subscribers will get some awesome freebies in just under a month!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Managing Story Knowledge With Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back


With Star Wars Episode VII just around the corner (cue Ewokish cheer), I return to a galaxy far far away for a new installment in Story Geek's Star Wars Countdown. Today's movie: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

While the film is disliked by many fans for its slower paced story and cliffhanger conclusion (what some call second book/movie/game syndrome, and others call the Two Part Trilogy), Empire has all the fun, magic, and scoundrelicious flirting of the first Star Wars. It still features a number of techniques us storytelling aficionados can study, like, for instance, the screenplay's excellent management and manipulation of knowledge to deliver one of the most iconic plot twists of all time.

Careful management of knowledge - delivering it at the right time, by the right character, after the appropriate amount of buildup - can make any piece of fiction pop, and Empire is certainly no exception.



In my mind, there are three types of knowledge in a story:
  1. Author Knowledge
  2. Character Knowledge
  3. Reader (Viewer/Audience) Knowledge
Author Knowledge
Author knowledge is all-seeing. God-like, even, because the author of the work knows everything about that work. They know what makes their characters tick, all the specifics behind why the protagonist's city is under a trade embargo, the future of the plot, the intricacies of the present plot, and all the backstory any skillful writer can show on the page with subtlety while keeping the bulk of their tome of untold character origins in the desk drawer.

With such great power comes great responsibility, of course. An author must convey knowledge in not only the most interesting way - and the way that best fits the story and its narrator - but also in a way the reader can clearly understand. The author has to master the placement of knowledge. Which characters have that knowledge? Should the knowledge be included at all? When should the knowledge be revealed? Where should it be revealed? Who should reveal it?

Character Knowledge

If author knowledge is the knowledge authors have, then - ding! ding! you got it! - character knowledge is the knowledge characters have. Each individual character, that is. Like real live people, characters aren't omniscient beings (well, most of them, anyway). Senator Palpatine might know right at the story's start that he's an evil Sith lord conspiring against the Jedi, but Anakin doesn't know that. Anakin might know he's having a saucy affair against the Jedi with Padme, but no one figures that out (apparently) until Obi-Wan has to hunt him down in Episode III.

The careful manipulation of character knowledge can create webs of depth in a story. It can create lies and betrayals and tragedies a la Romeo and Juliet (possibly the perfect example of the drama well manipulated character knowledge - or the lack thereof - can deliver). BUT, well executed character know-how isn't enough on its own to make a story tick, because stories have one last participant: its audience.

Reader Knowledge

This one is pretty simple. Reader knowledge is the information the author decides to give the reader throughout the story, timed and structured to elicit a certain effect. This covers everything from the basics like describing the story's world in an interesting way, to the more complex, like crafting a plot twist. If an author showed the reader everything, there would never be a plot twist, but if an author withholds everything, the reader might become confused and lose interest.

The careful peppering of knowledge throughout a tale is what can truly pull someone along for the ride. It's why cliffhanger endings are so popular; the author reveals just enough at the right moment to get an investment, but doesn't reveal so much it leaves the reader entirely satisfied. They have to find out what happens next.

The cliffhanger is only one example. Several pieces of fiction create long lasting drama without having to rely solely on what many would call a gimmick (sorry, cliffy). Breaking Bad is a great example of this, and if I have to explain why, you simply need to go watch the show. Like yesterday. Seriously. Stop reading my blog. It's mediocre anyway. Go watch Breaking Bad.

Aren't We Talking about Star Wars?

Right. Sorry. Star Wars.


Pew Pew












Empire's plot twist magic rests in its use of multiple POVs, notably the two sets of protagonists: Luke and Yoda, and Han, Leia, C3PO, R2D2, and Chewbacca. Knowledge is strategically divided between these two groups to build maximum tension - one of the essential building blocks of a great twist.

We know from Vader's POV scenes that not only is he looking for Leia - a rebel leader he intends to use to eliminate the cause - but also for Luke, in hopes he can capture and bring him to the emperor. So while story circumstances build tension on their own when Leia and co. are mousetrapped in Cloud City, Vader's plan to use Luke's captured friends as bait rises tension due to the distribution of knowledge.

Leia knows Vader's plan, but the person who the plan would most greatly affect (Luke), hasn't a clue. On it's own, this imbalance of knowledge wouldn't be enough to generate much impact. It's when Luke has a vision through the Force on Dagobah that his lack of knowledge increases tension, stakes, and therefore, viewer investment.




He senses Han and Leia are in danger, and when Yoda insinuates they'll perish without Luke's intervention, Luke plans to go on a rescue. Vader and Leia know the bait plan, we know the bait plan, but Luke's lack of knowledge and therefore his eagerness to step into what is a trap racks up the tension and our fear for the protagonist. Add to this Yoda's warning that Luke will be in great danger if he faces Vader to soon (all while we know Vader waits in Cloud City), and the stakes have been properly risen for an awesome climax. Luke has no idea what he's about to step into, but we do.

This is what makes his fight with Vader in the next segment so tense. We know it's a trap, we know Master Yoda's warning about Luke not being strong enough to face a Sith, and so when Vader comes out of the smoke to ascertain him, its a high impact moment to say the least.

All this tension makes the story ripe for a plot twist.

The audience thinks they know everything at this point, and all that could possibly go wrong has already gone wrong. Time to sit back, bite our nails, and wait for Luke's fate.

When the audience thinks they know everything, it's time to teach them something new. With the tension as high as it is, with the audience as invested as it can be in Luke's predicament, Lucas decided to drop knowledge only he and his villain had: that dear old Darth is actually Luke's father. Our lack of knowledge matches Luke's in this circumstance, and so as hard as it hits him, it hits us. We get to learn something new together.


Sometimes knowledge really is power.

Recap

If you're in the audience, you gain knowledge as the story goes, and if the story is any good, you're probably hungering for more. That's why we read books, watch movies, play games - it's to find out what happens next in the stories we care about.

If you're a storyteller...
  • Don't just throw all the information out there. Make a trail, give the reader opportunities to figure twisting plot points out for themselves. Hold some things back. 
  • But don't hold ALL things back. Nothing kills a good twist better than a lack of clarity. An author has to give us just enough without spoiling the surprise. A good twist isn't necessarily something that just comes out of nowhere - out of the blue. A good twist is not synonymous with "Random". Build it up, just enough that when the reveal happens, we believe it, understand it, and are shocked by it.
  • All good plot twists stun the reader at the same time as the character. Empire. Sixth Sense. Knights of the Old Republic. Bioshock. It isn't enough to fool the reader. The story has to trick the key character too, in a meaningful, non-contrived way.

If you liked this, consider coming back next time for a look at Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, where I'll examine the importance of agency in every character - from the mains to the secondaries.

May the force be with you!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Writer's Hiatus

Other possible titles for this post:

  • I Have Written 5x the Number of Words in Crits as I Have in My Own Book This Month, and I Must Scream
  • The Stretched-Too-Thin Author and the Deathly Deadlines 
  • Writer Wars Episode One, But Really Four Because Reasons: The Social Media Menace

No one can ever claim modern aspiring writers aren't busy people. Because these days, it's not just about the writing. It's also about the networking, blogging, platform building, peer-critting, peer-reading, twitter-devouring, mega storm we've thrown ourselves into - not because it churns ye olde creative juices, but because we've been told time and time again that it's necessary to success.

While flurries of agent and author blogs show widespread contradicting opinions on the matter, the resounding message spread across the aspiring writer net is: build a platform. Be visible. Be engaging. Dislike for the recent trend has been the subject of many an article, like Meghan Tifft's "An Introverted Writer's Lament", which asks: "How did [writing] become so interminably social?". Now I'm not about to turn this into one of those "Social Media is Bad M'Kay?" articles, because despite the laments, the aforementioned mega storm is key to many a writer's success.

Building a platform is the first step to building a network, engaging with your audience, and drawing in potential readers for your magnum opus.  As is (this one especially, I'd argue) building relationships with writer peers, exchanging critiques, and reading your contemporaries' works. It's all tools in the toolbox of a writer's career, but one has to wonder if being a writer is more made up of these things than actual writing these days.

In the first week of this past August, I came to the realization that is the first alternate title listed above. Funny as it is (to me at least), it was true. I had written nearly five times as many words of critique for my peers' works than I had written on my book. Between these crits, this lovely blog, my twitter, facebook, Scribophile, captainhood of a critique team on Scribophile, modhood for the same, and, oh yeah, that little diddy called a full time job, I was getting hardly any actual writing done.

All around me, my peers struggled with the same, and some of them - on top of everything else mentioned - have kids to boot. Many lamented similar themes on open forums or twitter or facebook, all while continuing to use the very things that sucked away their time. Like me, they saw the value in the platform they built, the relationships they'd sparked, but also saw the dip in productivity, the lack of words hitting the page.

In the beginning of August, I realized: I'm not a writer unless I write.

Nothing is more important to being a writer than actually writing (and maybe reading, too). Your blog can fade, you can lose twitter followers, those people on your favorite forum might not recognize you as well as before, but that all hardly matters in the face of doing what writers do best: writing. While everyone has their own circumstances that makes what I did next more or less possible, I took a break. I slipped away from social media for a while, from trading crits with my awesome CPs, and just focused on my stuff. 

So my contribution to the writing-advice-can-sometimes-be-wrong bandwagon, a la this article on why suggestions to write every day are ill-advised, is: it is a-okay to take a break. It is perfectly acceptable to escape twitter for a while and to work on your writing, because that above all else is most important. You are, after all, a writer.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

New Flash Fiction Publication Featuring Delicious Caramely (it's a word now) Dessert!


Curious about this delectable-looking Mexican dessert? That's flan. And "Flan" happens to be the title of my magical realism flash fiction piece that was published today in Pidgeonholes!

If you like love, family, and deliciousness, please consider heading over to the publication to check it out

Thank you, and happy reading! :)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Character Choice, 'Therefore', and 'But' in Star Wars: A New Hope













Star Wars released on May 25, 1977, starting what would quickly become a legendary icon. Its success spawned five feature film sequels and prequels, a massive multi-authored extended universe, and a love of science fiction for several generations. Best part? It's still going strong.

As part of my countdown to Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I'm examining the current six Star Wars movies to see what - on a storytelling level - makes them tick. We begin, of course, with the masterpiece that started it all: A New Hope.

Among an absolute plethora of things done right in the film, what made Star Wars' story incredible was how its characters drove the plot through their choices. Almost every choice has a consequence, triggers an event, or jump starts another leg of the journey. Plot points in the film rarely happen at random or in an unprecedented way; events are all linked by a vast web of intertwined choices made by each of the characters. These characters are given agency - the ability to affect their world - and the choices they make have gravity because of the resulting consequences. The plot therefore feels like the characters are creating it - living it - rather than it being thrust at them in hopes they fit the mold. Because of this, Star Wars is active, vibrant, clear, and emergent - some of the best aspects any story can have.



South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have explained their method for character-driven plots as replacing their theoretical "and's" with "therefores" and "buts". This is to avoid a form of void storytelling, where things happen without reason or cause: this happens and then this happens and then this happens, with little linking the procession. 

What is infinitely more interesting is to say: this happens, so therefore this happens, but then this happens; a slight adjustment that, above all else, capitalizes choices and consequences in an effort to create emergent stories.

So rather than: Luke bought some droids, and then the empire killed his aunt and uncle, and then he joined Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars is written with "therefores" and "buts": 

Luke bought some droids, unaware said droids were being pursued by the empire, but one of those droids ran off in the night, therefore Luke chases him down and meets Obi-Wan, who says his family may be in danger because of the empire chasing those droids, therefore Luke returns home to find the Empire has killed his aunt and uncle, who had bought the droids, but could not account for where they'd gone. 

Events are connected and the story is cohesive. Choices drive action and consequences which beget more choices. Let's take a look at some other plot points in the first half of the movie.



A New Hope opens not only with action (lasers and spaceships!), but an action: Darth Vader is leading his Star Destroyer in pursuit of Princess Leia, the leader of the rebellion against the Empire. Through one movie-opening choice, the story sets up Vader's goal, his opposition, and the initial conflict. In reaction to Vader's choice of pursuit (therefore), Leia gives astromech droid, R2D2, a message to deliver to Obi-Wan Kenobi, thus jumpstarting the droid's leg of the story. The inciting incident happens as a direct result of character choice.

The droids take an escape shuttle to planet Tatooine, but imperial stormtroopers are hot on their trail. Meanwhile, a scene introduces Luke and his family, a trio of farmers in need of an equipment upgrade. A group of Jawas arrives and sells Luke and Owen R2D2 and C3PO, shortly before R2D2 runs off to find Obi-Wan Kenobi (see above to see how that played out). 

While Luke and Obi-Wan go to Mos Eisley to get a ship to Alderaan, where Obi-Wan anticipates finding news of the rebellion, we return to the Star Destroyer, where Princess Leia refuses to give away the location of the rebel base to Darth Vader. Because of this (therefore), Vader blows up her homeworld, Alderaan. Therefore, when Luke and co. show up at the obliterated planet, it's the Empire's Death Star they run into, thus combining all these characters' paths through choice and consequence.

Recap

If you're in the audience, meaningful character choices which beget consequences can create an active story. It means rarely having to question why something happened, or how one thing led to the next, or even why one character's choice even mattered in the end. The result of telling stories through choices and consequences is most often a crisp, clear, cohesive story that, evidently, millions of people can enjoy.

If you're a storyteller, here are some things you can take away from A New Hope's use of character-driven plot:

  1. Have your characters make choices. Stories are about people, and people make decisions. Stories where the plot keeps happening to the protagonist, disallowing them from making any choices or proving their mettle, aren't often very active. It brings up questions like: does this character belong in this story? Do they have a goal and what are they really trying to do to get it? 
  2. Have those choices mean something. Choices that have consequences - especially long-reaching ones that affect the rest of the plot - are what creates character-driven stories. Showing consequences, showing the result of those choices, gives said choices meaning because they actively shape the plot. This empowers both characters and story.
This is only a brief, high-level overview of how character choice created an epic story. Obviously, Star Wars is a film worthy of further study, as, among other things, it jump started a new era in scifi. In all, this kind of storytelling is active, engaging, and brings characters to life.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

This Week in Geek # 1

The world of geekdom is ever busy, and the last week has been no exception. With E3, a record-breaking movie release, and a healthy dose of real-life sci-fi headed by NASA, anyone can find something to love. Here's what rocked my particular geeky socks over the last seven days:

Jurassic World














Jurassic World broke a new film industry record, raking in $524.4 million globally in its opening weekend. While I do think there are some things the movie could have done better, its appeal is undeniable. Few things are as satisfying as roving raptors and giant T-Rex monster mashes. With this financial success and the movie's many hints at dinosaurs beyond the walls of the park, I (excitedly) suspect we'll be seeing news of a sequel soon.


Kingdom Hearts III



Kingdom Hearts has long since become one of my favorite series, combining the lovable, romanticized worlds of Disney with the badassery of Square Enix's Final Fantasy. Square showed off a new gameplay trailer of KHIII at E3 (displayed above), and it looks awesome. So awesome, that aforementioned trailer features a literal hype train. Go watch!


Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

















Second on my dreams-do-come-true E3 wishlist, Square Enix showed off a new trailer for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided at the expo. It featured new abilities for Jensen, detailed weapon customization, and insight into the themes and story of this highly anticipated sequel. Deus Ex: Human Revolution remains one of my all-time favorite games (and go-tos for examples of great worldbuilding), and I cannot wait to see what Divided brings to the table. At bare minimum, it's another entry into the wonderful world of cyberpunk.


Mass Effect: Andromeda



If Mass Effect were a movie, it and Star Wars would have to duke it out for my favorite space opera flick. Luckily for my horrid character flaw of indecision, Mass Effect is mainly a series of video games. Incredible, emotionally moving video games. I nearly flew out of my cubicle at work when I saw E3's announcement for the Andromeda trailer. With its promise of a whole new galaxy, exploration, an improved Mako, and a brand new cast of lovable Bioware characters, its likely shot to the top of more than one geek's to-buy lists.


NASA Announces Mission to Europa















Speaking of space (minus the opera, although Chris Hadfield did sing on the ISS once), NASA has rolled out the real-life sci-fi this week by announcing their mission to survey Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Tidal shifts under the moon' surface suggest the likelihood of water, and water means potential for life or human colonization. As a proud member of the get the @$#% to space party, I'm excited to see what the mission says about Europa's habitability.

This concludes my shortlist of personal favorite geekiness this week, but rest assured, there is more to come. In fact, next week I'm starting a new series of blog posts featuring the galaxy's best space opera flick, Star Wars, in an effort to countdown to episode VII coming out at the end of the year. Each month until the movie's release, I'll be tearing in to what makes each of the Star Wars films tick, beginning of course with the one that started it all: A New Hope.

So tune in next time for some lightsaber and space battle geekiness!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Jurassic World and Character Agency

This post contains spoilers for: Jurassic World, Jurassic Park, and Jurassic Park: Lost World

























I like dinosaurs. 

I like their teeth, their scales, how cool their bones look on display, and I especially like when they start eating things - mainly humans and other dinosaurs. But for as much as I like (alright, love) our prehistoric friends, I love a well-told story even more, and well told stories almost always have character agency.

Character agency is the story's ability to make its characters the star of the show. A plot with strong agency isn't happening in a void, it's happening as a direct result of character decisions and actions. Stories without this much needed asset can suffer from plot holes, contrivances, and seemingly unrelated instances because the people through which the story is being told don't have enough force in their own tale. 

Chuck Wendig provides an awesome, full-length exploration of character agency on his blog.

For the most part, Jurassic World featured decently well-developed characters with quite a bit of agency. Sure you had a blatant damsel out of distress scene and a couple contradictions between the foreshadowing of the big mean brother and said big mean brother's actual actions, but again, for the most part, the movie did a great job with its cast. Protagonists solved problems using their unique skill sets, and each of them had their own personal stake in the tale, which boosted the importance of their decision making (and therefore their agency).

Jurassic World's Claire and Owen, flirting awkwardly.
But for me, the biggest lapse of character agency happened at the worst possible time: at the climax - the very end. I have nothing against giant dinosaur vs. other giant dinosaur (plus little dinosaur) action, but the main cast did little in those final moments.

Let's think back to the original Jurassic Park, where up until the very end, Dr. Grant and co. had clearly established character goals which drove their decisions. Get out of the tree, get over the fence, turn on the power, lock the door, etc., etc. Each completed goal led to the next, developing in complexity until finally, the cast met their match in the face of a pack of raptors. Sure, the T-Rex coming in and eating said raptors was a bit of a deus ex machina, but it was an exciting deus ex machina - one that felt earned after everything the characters had accomplished. 

Even take Jurassic Park's sequel, Lost World, and look at its ending. Ian races through San Diego to rescue the infant T-Rex from InGen, using it to lure its mother back onto the ship where Ian's co-lead, Sarah, tranquilizes it before it can escape. Still the same glorious, action-filled ending reminiscent of Jurassic's latest, but driven by the protagonists' decisions and actions. That's character agency.

My poor hometown...(or maybe lucky hometown?)

So what's the difference between those two movies and Jurassic World?

In World, Owen joins Claire and the boys with little explanation as to how he found them, making the reunion a bit of a contrivance. Add to this that when they arrive at the park's main compound, the Indominus Rex finds them (that's right, their story goal comes to them), and we're working with enough divine coincidence that suspension of disbelief starts to fail.

The boys hide, Owen shoots, and Claire, fed up with hiding and ready to demonstrate more problem solving via her skills of management and park knowledge (a great storytelling decision on the script writer's part), frees the iconic T-Rex from its pen. Owen runs out of bullets, and now the whole cast is hiding. Yep. Just hiding.

No attempts to hide, no attempts to run for cover, no attempts to signal any surviving military forces. If the T-Rex had failed to take down Indominus, I'm not sure what would have happened next. I honestly believe the protagonists would have rolled over and raised the white flag, because that's how they were acting. The climactic monster mash was cool, but it robbed the characters of choice, goals, decision-making, and in the end, agency. Shortly put: they weren't doing anything.

This problem can partly be attributed to the story's lack of depth as a whole. We get glimpses into surface level issues, but there's so much going on that we don't get to explore much complexity. Events lead into the next loosely, are rarely the result of action-consequence trails, and the character goals are merely survive and kill the big thing. While those are good overarching goals, the lack of meaningful mini-goals along the way demonstrates the lack of complexity and problem depth present in the film's predecessors. As a result, the ending was fun (again, big thing vs. big thing is cool), but for me, not as satisfying as I would have hoped.

Don't get me wrong. For a movie about dinosaurs, it hit many of the right notes: great action, awesome visuals, and a fair attempt at meaningful character development. But in the end, every story is about its characters, and not enough agency was present throughout to make this movie the storytelling homerun it could have been.

At the very least, there was Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle next to a pack of raptors, and honestly, that's all anyone really needs anyway. 


Zoom zoom.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Site Update! Things are Pink Now!

Anyone frequently clicking by the bottom-of-the-barrel bits of the internet may notice this site looks a little different than before. That's because I'm finally ready and super stoked to announce a site update!


Story Geek embodies everything I love.  

Story, for the awesome narratives that have inspired, moved, and energized me since, well, forever (special props to DragonHeart for allegedly being the first movie to make six-year-old me cry). This also includes being enamored with the gritty technical bits of storytelling and what makes a good story tick.  

Geek, for all the impossibly cool stuff the world of fiction has to offer, from the tech-filled tales of Star Wars to the magical world of Harry Potter. It's a love of every geeky form, like comic books, graphic novels, video games, and even early 20th century radio shows! 

Put 'em together and truth be told, I'm just a geek for stories!

As such, I move from the world of penning writer-self-help articles and switch instead to examining the nitty gritties of Earth's most awesome, geeky fiction. Hope you'll join me! Let's tackle Mad Max: Fury Road first, because come on. So good.

Forever a geek,
Tabitha

P.S. While I was working on the new site, something cool happened! Earlier this month, I got my first publication in Unbroken, a journal of prose poems. My fantasy poem "Fool's Gold" is in the current issue (May/June 2015) among some amazing poets - so check it out!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Deliver the Threat with Mad Max: Fury Road

Warning: post includes spoilers for the movie Mad Max: Fury Road. (duh, right?)



Mad Max: Fury Road is George Miller's rousing sequel to an iconic late 20th century classic. It is praised highly by critics and topped to the brim with amazing special effects and non-stop action.

On a storytelling level it did a lot of things right. Great worldbuilding, a simple albeit engaging plot, and for a movie with perhaps a grand total of fifteen minutes of dialogue, significant character development. Perhaps one of the most subtle yet well done storytelling techniques in the film, however, is how well it delivers on the promise of its threat.

In storytelling, threat is an attribute of the antagonist, whether the antagonist be a character, an empire, the environment, or any number of other potential opposers. Threat can be looked at in two ways:
  1. The antagonist generally poses a threat to the protagonist's desire or goal (this idea is often called "stakes", which can be summed up as: what does the protagonist stand to lose if they cannot overcome their opponent?).
  2. Threat is also the level of danger the antagonist poses, and usually rises as the story progresses.
Well-executed levels of threat do great things for a story. It increases tension, demonstrates the power of  both the antagonist and the protagonist, and increases in-story realism.

Threat is a demonstration of the antagonist's capability, and once a certain level of threat has been promised, it cannot easily be rescinded - else events in the story won't "ring true". It's not enough to be told  an enemy is powerful. It must be demonstrated to the audience. Luckily, Mad Max: Fury Road had quite the impressive demonstration.


Mad Max: Fury Road's main antagonist: Immortan Joe.
For the first twenty minutes of the movie, we see how capable, cruel, and intense Immortan Joe and his War Boys are. Our hero, Max, is captured almost immediately at the beginning of the film, and despite impressive efforts to flee, is wrangled back in by the sheer number of opponents. A scene later, thousands of worn, ragged, worshiping people stand in the valley below Immortan Joe's fortress, waiting for him to unleash a torrent of water only he can provide. Inside the citadel, we witness the juxtaposition his gluttony has created. While people run ragged on the outside, his fortress has water, crops, and women enslaved to either breed or produce milk.

When our other hero, Imperator Furiosa, takes her war rig off course a scene later, Immortan Joe realizes her intent to free his Five Wives, and calls his army of War Boys to action. We see the crazed, bloodthirsty reaction of the troops from the perspective of Nux - a War Boy ready to die in glory to please Immortan Joe.

All of this is build up: the promise of the threat. It's the promise of the antagonist's power, resources, and cruelty. For the sake of breaking down the first major conflict, I'd like to draw your attention to two of the big promises this setup makes:


  • Immortan Joe possesses a large army of vicious, loyal, bloodthirsty men trained for combat
  • The willingness of members in this army to seek glory above all else (glorified death)

As Imperator Furiosa storms across the desert in her war rig, the first of the above two promises is delivered: a massive army of War Boys led by Immortan Joe chases her across the sand. An unexpected threat not driven by the primary antagonist enters the scene in the form of factionless scavengers, compounding these two threats together, and thus increasing tension. With Furiosa's rig chased by two opponents and Max tied helplessly to the front of War Boy Nux's car, the movie does a fantastic job of putting us in the mindset of the characters: how the hell are they (am I) going to get through this?


Poor Max.
Nux and his War Boy companion begin to demolish the would-be scavengers in an impressive display of force consistent with the promise of might in the setup. It delivers on the promised threat of skill and intensity, which instills in the audience a sense of reliability and trust in the plot.

In order to fully repel the scavengers, one of Furiosa's men (from the same War Boy army) sprays his face in silver in a telltale symbol of sacrificial glory and willingly (joyfully even) lunges from his car, sacrificing his own life to destroy an enemy vehicle in one of the coolest moments in the film. This delivers the second of the two promises mentioned above: Immortan Joe's forces are very willing and very ready to die for his cause. This delivered promise further increases tension as well as audience engagement and trust in the plot. We have no doubt about the antagonist's power, meaning our heroes are in real danger.


A War Boy sacrifices himself to repel the scavengers.

That said, it's no surprise the entire audience goes rigid when Nux sprays his face in silver and starts pumping gasoline into his car. We see it, Max sees it, and because we all saw the threat delivered once, we're certain it will be delivered again. The movie will pull no punches. This crazy War Boy is going to do it. 

In a satisfying display of brutality, survival instinct, and a little bit of madness, Max punches through the back window as Nux lights a flare. Max lunges forward, pitting his strength against Nux's to keep the inevitable explosion at bay. In a moment where everyone holds their breath, Furiosa's war rig destroys the car before it has a chance to ignite.

The collective sigh of the audience when the camera zoomed in on that extinguished flare proves just how much tension was jam packed into that scene. This tension was made possible because the audience was engaged - they trusted the story's threat level, saw the threat demonstrated, and because of this, were easily able to put themselves right next to the characters as it happened.

And this was just the first leg of Max and Furiosa's journey.

Recap

If you're in the audience, threat is key. Subtle when done well, but key. You want to feel like you're there with the protagonist in the moment. You want whatever threat is promised to be consistent and acted upon throughout the whole story. Could you imagine this movie with the same setup, but a different execution? If the War Boys cowered or hesitated to give their lives, would it have felt as in sync with what was presented previously? Probably not. If done right, the proper execution of threat creates thrilling, engaging, intense rides just like this movie.

If you're a storyteller, here are some things you can take away from Mad Max: Fury Road's use of threat:
  1. Promise an attainable threat that works for your story. Create a threat that highlights your antagonist's strengths, but will be manageable and realistic for the protagonist to overcome.
  2. Build on threat when possible. Like the factionless scavengers, you can increase tension and threat level by throwing in unforeseen circumstances which can compound or enhance the primary threat delivered by the antagonist.
  3. Deliver the promise. Don't build up a villain who is immortal, has unlimited resources, and is the heart of all evil, and then have him let the hero slip by time and time again out of contrivance. Uphold the power of the threat you create.
  4. Characters should overcome threat through skill - not coincidence. You want your audience to feel a sense of thrill and accomplishment when the protagonist succeeds. Being saved by an unprecedented outside force may be convenient, but it doesn't pack a punch, and weakens the deliverance of your threat.
Mad Max: Fury Road was an awesome movie for so many reasons, but I was blown away by how well Miller managed the threat level. Threat is a vital aspect of most stories, and this is just one of the many works that do a great job with it.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

An Open Apology to my Creative Writing Class, Or: Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

By all rights, I should not have my Creative Writing degree. 

I went to a university where to even get into the program, one had to test in. An application. Ten pages of sample writing. I still have the material I submitted, but some days I think to burn it in a fire and chase the e-files all the way out through the recycle bin. Instead, I save them so I can torture myself and keep that ego in check.

But getting into the program isn’t what I’m apologizing for. No, I’m apologizing for the writing I accomplished once I got into the program. The panicked, incoherent scribbles I would write the night before deadlines, the pointless attempts at creating character depth in a 2AM frenzy, and the horrible ways in which I tried to prove myself deep and oh so sensitive.

The stories of trauma I spun could gag the decaying fish out of a hibernating bear. 

Oh, the twist endings. The angst. The caffeine fueled sermons on human history disguised as a short story. Here’s a sample. Go on, laugh at me. It’s really okay. (I laugh at myself all the time).


"The city is a horde, a coerced population of five million blinded citizens, eating out of the hands of an institution whose very purpose is to slaughter. They slaughter dreams. They slaughter people. They slaughter freedom." - that horrible writer from your 2012 CW class


I look back at those words and hate myself for them.

Because here’s the thing: I was a new writer. I think people new to writing often equate good writing with deep, meaningful, sensitive writing. People commonly think the best writers are the classic writers. The Hemigways, Twains, and Faulkner’s of the literary world. 

But I think what made those writers great is the passion they held for the stories they told. They didn’t write harrowing tales for the sake of sounding good or because the topic was inherently powerful; they wrote their stories because like all good writers, they loved their subject material. They held a passion for the real world and for the human condition. They felt something when they looked at others that made them want to write about this time, this place, this Earth. 

And admittedly, who wouldn't be passionate about this?


My Creative Writing program was amazing. We had phenomenal authors like the incredible Karen Yamashita teaching our classes. We had guest lecturers from the writing hub that is San Francisco, which was right next door. But as incredible as the classes were, they were focused on literary fiction. Our homework was comprised of the classics or more recent literary works. My classmates' material was literary. Incredible, deep, harrowing, and sensitive - everything I couldn't be no matter how many peaceful vignettes I attempted to write. I wanted to be a good writer like our professors, like my peers.


I remember how liberated I felt when I wrote my first real piece of genre fiction. It was a science fiction short story seated in the heart of a too-good-to-be-true Utopia. The liberation wasn't a result of my peers finally liking my work. It wasn't my professor's praise that I had finally "found my voice". The feeling came long before, when I was writing the piece. I felt like I could finally put my thoughts to paper. I felt connected to my otherworldly characters and bizarre settings. I felt my writing world go boom and I could see the thousands of stories I wanted to tell.

You know I love you, literary friends.

Both literary and genre fiction bring something to the table. I wouldn't know how well an author could weave a story without actually saying what the story is if it wasn't for Hemingway. I wouldn't know how well a setting could be a character if it wasn't for Dostoevsky. I wouldn't know how to jam-pack tension into pages until the reader's hands started shaking if it weren't for Kesey.

There are equally awesome examples in the world of genre fiction, too. In fact, genre fiction can be just as deep and meaningful as literary fiction. But I digress. The point is this, new, intermediate, and even veteran writers of the world: the best writing derives from your passions, not from what you think the world views as passionate. The age-old argument of literary vs. genre fiction is silly, because in truth, great writing comes from what you love. 

So, creative writing class, I am so, so sorry I tried to be literary. 

All along, I simply belonged in a spaceship.