Why I Write Fantasy: A Post About Possibilities, Magic, and He-Man

by John Howe

“Why did you pick that genre? Why fantasy?”

It is almost a strange question to me, like why do you breathe air. Though of course, sometimes I don’t breathe air — sometimes I hold my breath and swim deep into the seas of historical fiction or Gothic romance.

But I always resurface soon enough, always drawn back into worlds of magic, of epic struggles between reluctant heroes, and bold villains, of landscapes beyond belief — but not quite beyond imagination.

Buy why? And when did this begin?

The answer is that I grew up with no lack of fantastic worlds to delve into. As a young child, Mary Poppins, Dumbo, and Pinocchio were as oft repeated as The Music Man and The Sound of Music (note: I never said I was a normal child).

But I also can’t remember the first time I watched the original Star Wars trilogy (I know there’s a difference between sci-fi and fantasy, and some people consider Star Wars fantasy anyway — but for me, any speculative story is what I mean when I say fantasy).

There is no time, no moments or days, that precede me being in love with — and in awe of — Star Wars. The light saber battles, noble Jedi knights, and the terrible (and completely awesome) Lord Vader. And the funny robots. In a lot of ways, that perfect popcorn-bliss ball is something I still strive for in my own writing — and so do a lot of others.

But other stories existed early on for me right alongside that Perfect Trilogy. He-Man chiefly, as well as The Last Unicorn, and our Apple II computer’s pixel-licious version of Choose Your Own Adventure: The Cave of Time. Oh, and Robin Hood — both the Kevin Cosner and animated Disney fox versions. Equally.

And of course books: Fables and fairy tales, adventures and beautifully illustrated childrens’ books about the numerology of crows (12 is for joy tomorrow), the value of journeying East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and how, if you’re Barney Bipple, you should spend your magical dandelion wishes on practical things — like a talking dog and a new baby brother.

But, the counterpoint to all stories that have touched and changed me, past and present, is and has always been nature. I don’t believe I could write the fantasy I do without having grown up where I did.

I was born, literally, in the house I still live in down a mile-long dirt road in Oglethorpe County. I sleep about 30 feet from where I was born — I guess you could say I haven’t gone very far yet in life.

We lived on seven acres, five of which were wooded. My sister and I grew up illegally home-schooled outside the system by our mom, a former math teacher, and our dad, a nurse. It was a good, secluded, new agey upbringing — where magic crept in amongst the edges of the everyday. I was raised hearing that fairies played out in the garden, dancing under the leaves of Mom’s beloved flowers and herbs. Dad thanked the ‘wind spirits’ if — while on vacation — we had a good day sailing, and we learned that tiny triangles on crystals meant they had carried messages from ancient civilizations.

But we were encouraged to read, to grab an encyclopedia (back when all the knowledge of the world could be bound in 28 volumes) or the dictionary to answer any question, and yet — we were not guided, not told any things were real or not real. Everything was possible. And so I grew up — while non-religious — still placing Jesus and the Ark and the garden of Eden in the same realm of accepted reality as Bigfoot, aliens, unicorns, and New York City. All existed in a world large enough for every incredible thing to be true — if one sought it with enough dedication.

A teenage favorite of mine

For me, in writing, the fantastic has always been life as it is, but turned up to 11. Nature is an 11 by itself. I remember many a childhood play session outdoors (you have a lot of free time if you don’t go to school — I think our mom kind of quit our formal education after age nine). I would watch the ants hustle and climb their way to victorious feasts both large and small, and I would carefully flatten and decorate the sand under where faded goldfish bones were buried.

Ah yes, death (and birth) were an easy companion in the world of our little farm. I understood which bush the placenta that had accompanied me into this world was buried, as well as where a beloved dog I had been too young to remember yet knew the name of was buried. The dog’s grave was hollowed ground to me, buried beneath a gate long before I understood that as a metaphor. And my grandmother loved a story of us finding a dead rabbit and I swung on a swing all afternoon, holding the already stiff rabbit by a leg, swinging higher and higher, unconcerned and even indifferent to the chasm between his world and mine.

There was a magic, a perfection from the dawn of my memory until my 21st year, when my grandmother got sick and this sort of perfect pause ended and a slightly more real, more adult life settled in — though it’s still a world of magic, I must say.

But those early, unfettered years allowed for play, and for storytelling — I was the wild horse of the plains, then later I added people to my stories, continuing sci-fi TV shows’ story lines in the long wait from week-to-week. I loved how big the worlds could be, how strange the situations, how much was required of people as they journeyed onto other planets, or back in time, to discover the impossible and the unexpected.

As teenagers, my sister and I acted out impromptu ‘episodes’ of favorites The X-Files, Earth 2, and SeaQuest — the latter, on one evening, turning into a story of philosophy and almost religious revelation. Sadly no texts remain, only memories.

And now, of nature. Again. I have realized that nature is ‘ The center of my center, the heart of my heart.’ There is no question to which the answer is not found in the natural world. Just this summer I walked in an old growth forest in Western North Carolina, and wept in front of 300 year old popular trees, and if I doubted magic for one second in this world, all my doubts were swept away as I walked across a literal wooden floor made only from the living, woven roots of giants. We also saw the ghost of poet Joyce Kilmer, in the shape of an Appalachian Cottontail but that’s a story for another day.

from Our State Magazine

And so again, I circle back to the question — why fantasy? I love reality; I deeply admire a well-researched, true life story. The world has many beautiful dramas, and funny comedies. The common person is never commonplace. And yet…

J.R.R. Tolkien described the great city of Gondor in Lord of the Rings as “…not builded, but carved by giants out of the bones of the earth.” That is all I seek: great writing and the great bones beneath the reality of what we see and understand. A pattern and structure to explain why we are gifted with angels and poets and prophets at the exact moments in our lives when we need them most, and how we can find grace and meaning in a leaf or a rainbow or a Heron flying overhead on our mother’s dying day.

by Alan Lee

Another writer, Francois Rabelais, said, ‘I go to seek a great perhaps.’ I was raised on ‘perhaps-es’ — in a world where anything was possible and even likely, the world of Atlantis and the Moon landings, of dragons, both mythic and Komodo, a world free of bullies, but also lacking in new friends. A world of a thousand doors, a thousand magical experiences awaiting me only to discover how to turn the key.

The true reason I love to write those stories is that only fantasy can capture the magic I have experienced when discovering a pepper moth camouflaged against the forest floor, only sci-fi can envision worlds as grand as the order behind the universe in which we have been given, and only horror can return to the world the awe to which it is owed.

I only write of magic, because I have only seen magic — in all my days and in each of you — and I hope to leave a little bit of enchantment behind me before I pass under my final gate.

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2015: 10 Things That Are Inspiring My Writing

Even though the year isn’t over yet, I’m so excited about the things that are exhilarating me and moving my writing forward that I just had to share them (note: no real spoilers here, just a few lines of non-revealing dialogue) —

#1 — Hannibal

Hopefully season three isn’t the end, but if it was — what an ending!  I can’t even count all the ways this series awes me and makes me jealous.  It is more beautifully shot and designed, more intellectual, and has more intimate relationships than almost any series I have even seen.  I did feel like they lingered on the beauty a tiny bit long in the beginning of the season but  once they picked up the pace they were incredible.  This is one of those shows that has changed me and will be with me forever.  I want to make things this rich, this thoughtful, this surprising.

Hannibal Lecter: Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time, and are we not created in God’s image?

Will Graham: Depends on who you ask.

 

#2 — Mad Max: Fury Road

The trailers looked so exciting, so balls-to-the-wall, so over the top that finally seeing the feature-length film had to be a letdown.

ONE WOULD THINK.

Instead, Fury Road managed to not only hold onto that excitement and craziness for two solid hours but it also added in a great plot, strong characters, and the best female hero the genre had seen since Sarah Conner.  And finding out that — on Amazon.com — silver spray edible cake frosting is ‘often bought with Mad Max: Fury Road’ has restored my faith in humanity.

Nux: If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the fury road!

 

#3 — Nate Ruess / Grand Romantic

I’ve really enjoyed Fun.  Now their lead singer’s new album has become one of my favorites of the year.  He has this emotive, beautiful, lilting voice and it just screams ‘story’ to me.  ‘Brightside‘ especially makes me want to write another love story.

Cause there’s just something about you my love
Something in the way you comb your hair
And fall apart at the seams

 

#4 — Friday Night Lights / Season 3

Aww FNL.  I started this series last year and have been waiting about six months between seasons.  I got past season 2 (the truncated sophomoric stumble) and watched FNL regain its footing and rise again like an eagle (or a panther) in full glory in season 3.

I love, love, love these characters.  I don’t care about football.  I don’t care about teenagers’ love lives.  I don’t care about small town politics.  But I care about everyone, and every second, of Friday Night Lights.

Tami: I love that about you.

Coach Taylor: What? That I can’t make a decision to save my life?

Tami: No. That you make the decision with such a conscience. What other coach would think like that? I think it’s because you’re a teacher first. You–you are a molder of men. And I find that admirable, and I find that very sexy.

 

#5 — Daredevil

I’m only halfway through this one, and yet have been blown away again and again by the writing and the visuals.  The use of light — greens and yellows and neon words shattered among the darkness of an endless night turn the hero’s blindness and growing heroism into a physical landscape.  And the introduction of the Kingpin rates among the best, and most surprising, entrances by a villain in TV history.  I believe Netflix has not only met the quality standards set forth by the Marvel movies, but in many ways it has eclipsed them.

Ben Urich: There are no heroes, no villains. Just people with different agendas.

 

6# — Jim Kroft / Journeys #1 & #2

How Jim Kroft isn’t famous yet I cannot say, but I’m sure he’s on his way.  ‘Journeys’ 1 & 2 are beautiful, imaginative, heartbreaking, and hopeful.  ‘Break For the Light’ is a perfect anthem for reaching for your true desires, but ‘Beijing Morning‘ is the one that breaks my heart every time.

Days may come and the days may go
Sometimes the demon is taking hold
I want the courage to make these steps
To walk from error and regret

 

#7 — The Unusuals

“You should watch ‘The Unusuals’.”  I kept hearing some version of that from my sister, again and again, over the last few years.  She’d seen it when it first came on, while I sometimes avoid new shows till I know if they’ll last.  Terrible, I know.  Well, this show didn’t last beyond its first season but it doesn’t matter, in one season it created more memorable characters, moments, and stories than many shows do given a decade.  Come for Jeremy Renner, and stay for the dialogue — heartbreaking in one moment and gut-busting in the next.  My only regret is that I didn’t see it sooner.

Det. Shraeger: I swear, if you took all the time that men wasted thinking about the female breast throughout history, there’d only be enough time to read a magazine.

Det. Walsh: What, like Juggs or Maxim?

Det. Shraeger: Yeah, you’re adorable.

 

#8 — Far From the Madding Crowd

O-M-G.  I’m not usually someone who goes gushy for love stories.  I really enjoy them, but only the well-done ones.  So I’d been aware of this movie because I love that 1800s English setting but I wasn’t sure if it was for me.  Then my friend and fellow writer Jill Hartmann-Roberts saw it and suggested we go see it together. Wow!  What a story.

There’s just something about the moments here, seconds when the light hits two people who were going about their lives, unites them in a pure second of love or lust or hate — and then the world spins on but each’s life is changed, almost ruined, because of that profound pause.  All the actors are great here, and the scenery is SO beautiful.

Bathsheba Everdene: From now on you have a mistress, not a master. It is my intention to astonish you all.

 

#9 — Dragon Age Inquistion

Bioware’s ‘Dragon Age’ series is one of my favorite sagas in video games.  ‘Dragon Age 2’ may always have the edge because, for me, it was like living and making choices inside an HBO drama — the characters were that well-written.  And you never forget your first Fenris romance!

That said, DR3 lived up to the hype and then some, with an unbelievably open world and an even better combat system.  It was the grandeur of the journey though, that caught me up most.  I don’t spend a lot of time gaming, and it can be easy for me to play around in an open world and then lose interest (see every Bethesda title ever [still enjoyed them!]).  DR3 seemed made to stop that from happening.  It united the expansive world of ‘Dragon Age 1’ with the climatic plotting of DR2, making you and your character change and grow along the way (one can feel the beats of Joseph Campbell — ‘and here the hero crosses the threshold’).  Havor, my Qunari warrior, progressed from captive to hero to leader of men — and found himself a flirty mage named Dorian along the way.  Not a bad for a hero’s journey.

Solas: I am surprised you do not practice blood magic, Dorian. Is it not popular in Tevinter?
Dorian: While we’re sharing surprises, you’ve done a lot less dancing naked in the moonlight than expected.
Solas: Tevinter lore about elves remains accurate as always.
Dorian: I wanted to see you make flowers bloom with your song, just once.

 

#10 — Chappie

‘Chappie’ is ten pounds of crazy in a five pound bag but, for me, it works.  Is it a drama?  A comedy?  An action movie?  It’s all these and more.  At its heart is Sharlto Copley — amazing and visionary — as the lead character.  Chappie learns and grows throughout the movie and since much of his ‘childhood’ is spent with hoodlums, the movie is both an indictment of violence amid poverty and an example of the power of love and family even in the worst of situations.

And it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

And filled with great action.

The best way to put it is: it’s a Neill Blomkamp story and — for some of us — that’s an awesome thing.

 

And still to come —

  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • 007’s Spectre
  • The Martian
  • Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs movie
  • Crimson Peak

. . . and more.

Even though there haven’t been a ton of things to inspire me this year, the ones that have are off the charts!  If you have a second, tell me one of your current inspirations.

After all, this list could always use a Part 2 . . .

What Inspires You Most?

When I saw author Rob White‘s list of books that have influenced his writing most (in no particular order), I knew I had to make my own list.  And I encourage you to do the same.

Whether you’re a painter, writer, musician, etc, the way you create today probably owes a lot to something you read or saw or heard along the way.

Now, this isn’t a favorites list, that would be a little different, but these are the books that are influencing how & what I write right now —

  1. The Lord of the Rings — Frodo the hobbit joins a fellowship of heroes to destroy a powerful ring.  One book to rule them all (sorry).  I’ve only been able to read it once, but for me, LOTR is a lot of what I want to create: magic, great characters who interact in interesting ways, probably the deepest fantasy world ever created (or at least one of the best) and most of all, a world that extends far beyond the main story and makes you think there’s always another tale to be told.  And beautiful descriptions.
  2. Pride & Prejudice — Lizzy spars with the wealthy Mr. Darcy as she and her sisters try to find good husbands.  Not only am I writing a novel very much inspired by Jane Austen right now, Society & Civility, but I have become more and more in awe of P&P’s plotting over time.  It’s such a wonderful escalation.  And Lizzy Bennet is still one of the best heroes in English fiction.
  3. Remains of the Day — A butler finds himself on his first vacation in years — a road trip to a special destination.  There is something about the way the lead character, and his world, is so tightly wound and constructed (no surprise how other covers show a pocket watch).  I think the idea that, in the end, we may be jailers of our own lives and that our personalities may be our final prison is an intriguing one.
  4. Fruits Basket — Orphan Tohru Honda comes to live with boys cursed to transform into the animals of the Chinese zodiac — whenever they are hugged by members of the opposite sex!   This manga is 23 books long (the story is rather like a multi-year TV series) and has a cast of over 20 main characters.  I reread it this spring and it was one of the highlights of my year.  More characters means more of a balancing act, but the payoff is wonderful and you watch the characters interact and grow.  Great ending.
  5. Misery — A writer is saved after a car accident by his ‘biggest fan’.  Too bad she’s crazy.  This was always one of my favorite Stephen Kings books (and I read a lot of them as a teenager) but it was only rereading it after becoming a grown writer that I really was taken in.  Perfect plotting, intense drama, and one of the greatest villains of all time.
  6. About a Boy — Will is an adult with lots of money, no job, and no responsibilities.  But everything changes when he meets serious, 12 y.o. Marcus, and they begin to become friends.  Love Nick Hornby, and High Fidelity or Slam could be here instead but AAB captures funny dialogue, great details, and real life problems and solutions (and not-so-solutions) in an easy-to-read, winning way.  Love the way the leads trade viewpoint chapters.
  7. Mystic River — Three childhood friends are reunited when one’s daughter goes missing; the other two are a cop and a suspect.  The story’s great but it all comes down to the lines; I’ve often thought Dennis Lehane could do more in six words than other people could do in a paragraph.
    “Dave watched him standing up at the bar, chatting with one of the old dockworkers as he waited for his drinks, Dave thinking the guys in here knew what it was to be men. Men without doubts, men who never questioned the rightness of their own actions, men who weren’t confused by the world or what was expected of them in it.”
  8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Poor Arthur Dent awakens just in time to see Earth destroyed; luckily, his wacky space adventures are only beginning.  There was a time in my youth when Hitchhiker’s and Dave Barry books were the thing when it came to humor.  I even stopped reading Dave for a while because I thought he was influencing me too much.  That influence is lessened now, but Hitchhiker’s still casts a long shadow.  Even though most of my writing isn’t pure comedy, this novel still speaks very strongly to me.
  9. Maurice — Maurice is a proper early 20th century English gentleman, perfectly made for society in all ways, except one –he is gay.  I recently told my sister that I feel like there’s somewhere where I’m always reading this book (or watching its movie) even while the main me is talking, working, and living my life.  It’s had that big of an impact on me.  To me, it is just about the perfect love story, but it’s also about figuring out who you are and what you stand for.  A lot of my characters have a Maurice-like journey.
  10. The Secret Garden — Orphaned Mary is brought to live on an English estate and discovers the titular wonderland.  I kind of get chills just looking at this cover — this is why the book is here, even though I read it so long ago (and really, Alice in Wonderland should be here too).  This book is about place, and growth, and discovering friends in the most unlikely of places.  But in the end, I always just really wanted to be in that wild, forgotten, beautiful garden, and even now my writing continues the search for the mysterious and the extraordinary.
  11. The Great Gatsby — Nick comes from the midwest to New York and soon meets the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, a man of many friends — and secrets.  This is a bonus entry because I forgot it the first time I did the list.  Still just about my favorite kind of writing on a sentence level.  “Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.” WTF!  That’s just sensational writing.

And in the end, that’s what resonates with me most — fantastic stories, characters, and lines that make me a little jealous — and a lot inspired.  So who’s inspiring you?

Summer Movies: What Happened to Happy?

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

I love dark, complex movies.  I’m a big fan of cable TV anti heroes.  I think hiring Bryan Singer, the director of that clever little drama The Usual Suspects to direct the big budget superhero movie The X-Men was a masterstroke, and popcorn movies have been the better for it since then.

And yet.

While I’ll always love The Dark Knight trilogy and all the other descendants of the mutants, two movies this year have made me quite mad (and sad) by going super-dark (death of a main character) in what was otherwise a very fun, pretty light ‘good time’.

‘Good times’ used to be what summer movies were all about.  They were somewhat brainless (as a whole) and their characters usually lacking, but the whole idea was to pull yourself out of the heat for a couple of hours (that’s two, modern directors, just 120 minutes please) munch of some fun snacks, watch things blow up, and generally not think too hard.  To me the quintessential summer movies were the back-to-back years of Will Smith — Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997).  Fun, sweet, and giving you no reason in the world to cry.  Oh, Mad Men it was not, but then, Mad Men hadn’t been invented yet.

Then in 2000 The X-Men came along.  Along with The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The X-Men helped swing the pendulum back toward quality, director-driven action and adventure movies, like those of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and away from the increasingly dumbed-down cops-running-with-guns-towards-aliens cinema of the late 80s and 90s.

The other things these two early 2000s film ushered in was a massive resurgence in fantasy.  Aliens had been big, but now anything under the sun was possible, from frying someone with a lightening bolt to using one ring to rule them all.  And in the hands of a new generation of indie film artiste, these movies (largely) were the best of both worlds — big beautiful spectacle with a surprisingly satisfying, very human center.

Now though, I wonder if the pendulum hasn’t swung too far.  Directors are now pushing the ‘realism’  of life into summer movies not just by having flawed characters and complex situations, but by actually, actively seeking to make their audiences sad and possibility heartbroken.  There’s a great piece of writing advice (I wish I could remember who said it) that goes — ‘You can tell the reader the world is good or that the world is bad, but not that the world is shit.’  To me, this means you can look at the mud or the stars, and you can show corruption and death and sorrow, but within an ethos, within a frame.  The feeling should be that even if this character’s life has gone terribly wrong, somewhere out there, someone is still having a good life.

The ‘Life is shit’ mentality sort of shows that all always comes to naught, good deeds are always rewarded with unjust desserts, and everything we love always dies.  And I feel these happy, popcorn movies, are starting to be more about pain and loss than about fun and adventure.  I’m all for dark dramas that leave you spent and shaking, wiping tears from your eyes.

Requiem For a Dream — don’t go into this one expecting a lot of laughs

But with movies that are sold (in their advertising) as fun, light, or family-friendly, I don’t expect to need to use my popcorn bucket to catch my tears.  Exceptions are when an entire movie hinges on a death, say The Lion King, though that film’s message is certainly not ‘Life is shit’.  The Dark Knight movies were sold as adult tales and everything in their aesthetic told us that death and loss could be part of the package.  Now, they weren’t ‘feel-good’ movies, but never promised they would be.

Perhaps to me that’s the greater sin — not the sadness and death, but the unexpected nature of it.  In both of the movies that disappointed me this year, I had thought earlier in the films ‘This is the best movie ever! (or at least for the year).”  They were funny, light-hearted, clever, romantic, and exciting — and then they both did unforgivable things.  The ‘Life is shit’ option.  Oh, sometimes life is shit, people die, and there isn’t always a happy ending (at least for a while).  But isn’t that more of an exploration for a drama to cover?

The thing is, these disappointments weren’t just good movies, they were potentially great movies.  And for some people, they are great still.  But for me and a lot of others, we won’t be able to enjoy them as fully as we’d hoped.  When Diane Disney, Walt’s little daughter saw Bambi for the first time, she was upset by the death of Bambi’s mother.  Walt told her that was just what happened in the story.  “No Daddy,” she said, “You could have made her live.”

In the end, great power does come with great responsibility.  Dark storytelling brings a level of reality to fantastical summer fare and summer films return the favor by bringing popularity and high stakes to human drama.  But for this writer, I just keep thinking ‘You could have made them live’.

The Prisoner of Azkaban — dark done right. Thanks Alfonso Cuarón!

 

Awesome Day #3 — Finishing a book

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Yesterday was day #3 of my 8 day ‘stay-cation’.  Except for going to see X-men (it was great!), I spent the rest of the day working on my novel Fall Street.  It’s not done yet, but it’s getting closer.

As a writer, there’s a special feeling as you get toward the end of a book, perhaps a little like what a parent feels when their child graduates high school.  You’re excited for them and their future, and yet you’ll miss this early time in which you discovered who they were and helped mold them into the thing they’d become.

Fall Street is about a 15 year old girl growing up in 1950s America.  Her views and beliefs change after she unexpectedly befriends the most popular guy in school, Tommy Delano, and through him, she gets to know John Rainhorse, the only Native American boy in town.  A lot of trouble ensues but Claire never loses her sense of humor or her desire to see the world become a more tolerant place.

Yesterday I was re-reading it and making notes on this draft.  I’m a failure as a writer though (!) because I feel I should be making bigger changes but I love it just the way it is 🙂  Oh well, I did polish it a lot over the years I was writing it.  Of yes — years.  I wrote the first chapter in 2004, then just kept coming back to it now and then, whenever the mood hit me, till I finished it last year.  So excited!  In fact, I’m off to reread the last ten pages now . . .

Here’s a little except — 

I could still feel John’s hand upon my neck, even though we’d parted a half hour ago.  I ask again, “So you really don’t think it’s wrong?”

Tommy was slicking back his hair.  He shook his head, seemingly a little puzzled.  “He’s been my best friend for three years.  I don’t know why it doesn’t bother me, his skin.  I just kind of stopped seeing it.

‘You know, this one time in church, the preacher told a story about these two women who did everything alike — breakfast at the same thing, eggs, everything.  And they both loved gardening.  Same . . . Shovels, everything.  The times they liked to work—  It went on like this.  But they liked different petunia colors or something.  And so they were bitter enemies, and they fought all the time, and then one day God came down to them — ’cause God came do that in stories — and God came down to them and said ’If you have everything else in the world in common, why are you fighting over this one thing?  And they became best friends.  I’m kind of like that petunia woman.  What’s color matter in the end?”

Oh my God, did Tommy Delano just make my parents look like idiots?

 

10 Tips for Building Believable Love Stories

One of my favorite love stories.

For those of you who couldn’t make it to my Athens Writers Association class in Athens last weekend, here’s a taste of what we discussed —

  1. Make your characters interesting. The best way to make me believe the love story is to make me believe in them. No matter how good the blueprint, if your building materials are Styrofoam and gummy bears, that cathedral ain’t standing for long. The more interesting and complex your lovers are, the more we’ll believe in them and root for their ‘happily ever after’. If your having trouble with the love story, go back and spend more time figuring out who these people are.
  2. Go for an off-kilter aesthetic. Symmetry is beautiful but, to me,love stories thrive in the place between beauty and ugliness. Let me explain— the cheerleader and the jock get together. They both like the same things, the same movies, and same religion. They’re perfect for each other. Are you asleep yet, ‘cause I am. There’s nothing wrong with that story if there’s an important ‘other’ element (’perfect’ couple must overcome her drinking problem or they’re both men- and it’s 1950). But in most cases, I’m more interested in the people you wouldn’t think would be together. My character Maurice (who follows the god of Darkness) falls for servant of a rival god just as a war is about to break out. A different Maurice (E.M. Forster’s) is a college-educated city man who falls for a simple (but super-charming) games-keeper. This is not just about differences in background, this is about the characters seemingly having good reasons to have no interest in each other and yet finding themselves very interested indeed.
  3. There’s obstacles to their happiness. Now, you could say that’s more about good storytelling than being ‘believable’ and yet part of the real world is diving into challenges and changes as you add a new person into your life. Your family might not approve; their family might not approve. You might live in different cities. But better yet — you might not agree about everything. I think some of the best love stories have the characters standing in the way of their own happiness. Can they move aside and allow themselves the happy ending? And should they? Love can spring up between diametrically opposed characters, say a detective and a killer, and they may love each but still make choices that ensure they won’t walk into the sunset together.
  4. Neither one is perfect. Most often the hero (male or female) in more interesting and flawed and the ‘love interest’ is some sort of perfect, beautiful, glowing god or goddess from the sky. No matter how great they appear to their lover, the love interest should have flaws, even tiny ones. In my mind, Edward (in Twilight) was a little too boring and perfect — a wish fulfillment for an accessory instead of a human being. Compare that story to My So-Called Life’s Angela and Jordan. The most interesting thing about us is often our weaknesses. And it’s often those weaknesses that we are most protective of in those we love.
  5. When it comes to cliches, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There’s certain phrases (and situations) that you should probably avoid like the plague (I promise to stop now). The ‘tripping into a stranger’s arms’ or ‘both reaching for the last- whatever’ are pretty overused as meet-cute devices. And I shouldn’t have to tell you to avoid actual cliches like ‘Her heart skipped a beat’. That said, don’t give up the emotion or impact you’re looking for, just find a more clever way to express it. In the beginning of Jumping the Broom, Sabrina is tired of sleeping with cheating run-a-round men and makes a promise to God to not have sex again until it’s with her (as yet unmet) future husband on their wedding night. So you get the feeling God is about to introduce her to the man of her dreams, and he does — when Sabrina accidentally hits Jason when he walks in front of her car. Her overreaction of bumping into him goes from funny to sweet when the audience sees their both smitten from the start. Likewise, if you feel like your character’s heart really did skip a beat (arrhythmia) then write that, but write it in such a way that it’s uniquely you (or better yet, uniquely your character). ‘Lucy decided she was having a heart attack, right now, right here in Josh Logan’s office. Josh raised his beautiful eyebrows in concern. Great, thought Lucy, I meet the man of my dreams and the only place he’ll ever take me is to the morgue.’ Dig past what you’ve seen and try to really connect to your character, where they might meet someone, and how they might react (especially if it’s not smooth).
  6. The best times aren’t the most perfect times. The best kiss, most romantic date, hottest make-out session, and favorite moment may not be exactly as planned. Scarlett and Rhett first kiss beside a dirty wagon with an unconscious woman and a baby in it, and he’s about to abandon her to drive miles by herself through a war torn countryside. Oh yes, and Atlanta is burning to the ground behind them. Their both soot-stained and sweaty — and it’s a great kiss. Much better than if they were in a perfect hotel room with glasses of Champagne. The same way that the ‘perfect’ first date with your crush might be ruined when he has to drive you to the hospital because your best friend got into a car crash- while driving drunk. Worst night ever? Not so fast, your friend was all right and while you watched her sleep, your crush sat down beside you and took your hand — and in that moment you kind of knew he was going to become your husband.
  7. Make us believe these two could have a great life together. Whether or not you have a sunset planned for your two leads, we (the readers) should at least believe it could happen. By which I mean, their personalities and souls are compatible. Do they laugh together, get each other’s humor and priorities? Do they respect the other’s mind? Even if they are opposed in some major way (she’s going to war/ he’s a pacifist) you still want to believe they could be happy if that one thing didn’t exist. Some characters fight and misunderstand each other so much that I want to separate them now, and I’m certainly not betting on a golden anniversary. In the same way, if your characters break up and get together more than once — I’m gone. I’ll go give my heart to a love story I can believe could work out longterm. The exception is something like the film Sid & Nancy: totally screwed-up characters whose destiny is to burn down the world with their love — and hate.
  8. Don’t fall into traditional boy/girl relationships. This is related to the tip about cliches. You may have noticed that in a couple of examples above, I role-reversed (she have a drinking problem/she’s going to war). That’s because few places force characters into tighter traditional roles than love stories. ‘“Don’t leave me!” She begged, clinging to his sleeve. He shook her hand away- cold, unfeeling.’ Youch. But what if you reversed it? Suddenly, it’s at least a little interesting. In Fall Street Claire is a sensible, sane, and intelligent 15 year old. Tommy is the popular kid two years older than her. But as they become friends, she realizes he’s a lot more emotionally needy than she is, and she had to reassure him and look after him. The reverse wouldn’t be much of a story, but the fact that people would expect an older boy to act one way (especially around a younger girl) to me gives the scenes more interest. One interesting way to break out of stereotypes is to have both of your characters be male or female. ‘Gay’ films or stories as genre can have their own cliches (just like ‘chick lit’). But I’m not talking about category fiction here — I’m talking about taking the exact story you were already telling and making the lovers the same sex. ‘He’s an ex-marine and the only person who can save the President from an assassin’s bullet. And he teams up with a rookie Secret Service agent to protect the leader of the free world. All the while, sparks fly between these two!’ It would be an interesting twist, and it might help you break out of expectations while writing it (ie the assassin — OF COURSE — holds the agent hostage in the final battle).
  9. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. One of the most believable love stories is ‘the one who got away’. 99.99% of romance stories try to deliver that happy ending — your story can really stand out if you admit that sometimes love can’t conquer all. If you really see your character unable to forgive him, unwilling to move to Bombay, or fatally shot in the final showdown with the assassin, consider following your instinct. There’s always room for another Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliette. Now, in a lot of cases, we want the happy ending and woe be to the writer who tricks us. So consider giving us a heads up (right in the beginning the narrator of 500 Days of Summer tells us ‘This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story.’). You can also have an open-ended love story where you leave us hopeful without promising sunsets and grandbabies. In romance even a pinch of doubt can shake the reader out of a rose-colored haze and remind them of events in their own life.
  10. It’s weird and different. In real life, it can be hard to explain exactly why you connect to a certain person, what so funny about them, and why you can’t get them out of your head. Most people will never understand exactly why you fell for each other. But in fiction, the writer needs to make us understand, to feel the love story from the inside out. You can do a surprisingly good job with the simplest story. Imagine a teenage boy — he carries the girl’s books every day, asks after her family, and- is totally ignored. But he keeps trying. And, if she’s worthy of him, we want him to succeed. That said, the shortcuts to connecting to your readers (his startlingly blue eyes, her pounding heart) — we understand we’re suppose to care without really connecting to the story. Your readers, and your characters, deserve better. Dig deep, and discover what makes these two different and how to write something you’ve never read before. My favorite love quote (which I can’t find the source of) is “Her lips were so close, what else could I do?”

And that’s what you want; give your readers no choice but to fall in love with your story, your characters, and your view on romance. It could be the beginning of a lifelong affair.

Ten Things I Want You to do Before the End of the Year

We have a little over a month left in the year.  I want you to end 2013 strong, alive, and full of possibility.  Here’s how to do it:

Ten Tips to Come Alive

  1. Pick one event, concert, etc that you’ve wanted to go to but have never signed up for — buy that ticket today, even if the show etc isn’t till next year.
  2. Make a holiday spending plan right now, before the holidays really start.  Make a list of each person you want to give a gift to (this year, give nothing out of obligation — the world does not benefit from it.  If you feel you must give to someone you don’t care about, make a donation to their favorite charity — that way everyone wins).  Choose an amount to each person that is within your budget and don’t change your mind or get caught up in ‘out-gifting’ each other, even if it’s done in a loving way.
  3. Pick two days before the end of the year to be only ‘fun days’ for you (either ask for these days off from work or, if you have a set schedule, mark two ‘off’ days right now.  On these days just enjoy life — enjoy your friends, nature, the season, but don’t do regular work, house work, chores, needed shopping, of even present buying.  Treat yourself to these two days, they will remind you what everything else is about and probably be your favorite days of the fall.
  4. Take a one night, overnight, trip to somewhere you’d love to see.
  5. Take at least one walk a week, in nature if possible.
  6. Make a plan to cut down/out of the over-indulging during the holidays (i.e. plan to attend 3 Christmas parties but not five; drink 1/3 less than last year etc).  You’ll enjoy your indulgences more if there’s less of them.
  7. Make a plan to help one person this season, be it in a large or small way that you would have not helped otherwise.  Try to do more than just give money.
  8. Buy yourself a gift this year — you’re amazing and beautiful.  Wrap it and put in under the tree.
  9. Get rid of more than you get.  Think of the amount of new things you’ll probably get this holiday season — gifts you receive, new decorations, new clothes — and start right now giving away old things you don’t want.  Give them up now and you’ll have more room and appreciation for your new items.
  10. Try one new thing before the end of the year.  Take even just one class or look up the instructions online.  Learn to write a poem, climb a rock wall, paint a picture.  Or make your first blog, Pinterest Board, or start a Meetup group for next year.

You are amazing, beautiful, talented, and poised for greatness — let’s knock the rest of 2013 out of the park.

A Writer’s ‘Most Enjoyable’ TV Shows List

I put the question of this ‘top ten’ to my sister, with the stipulation of ‘most enjoyable’.  The reason was not to exclude hard-to-watch dramas but rather to alleviate the fears that one would have in creating a BEST list.  So this is really about my favorites, not the ones I believe should be on display in the Smithsonian or that we should force schoolchildren to watch.

WARNING: Tiny spoilers within.

And so without further ado —

The Nominees

(basically shows I’d seen at least one season of and could imagine making it into the top ten)

Parks and Rec

The Sarah Conner Chronicles

30 Rock

Quantum Leap

Royal Pains

Simpsons

X-Files

Justified

Deadwood

Glee

The Vampire Diaries

Nip/Tuck

The West Wing

True Blood

Boardwalk Empire

The Glee Project

Spongebob Squarepants

American Dad

Family Guy

Rocky & Bullwinkle

Being Human

House

Life on Mars (UK)

Life on Mars (US)

Sherlock (Granada)

Sherlock (BBC)

Doctor Who

Mad Men

Walking Dead

Breaking Bad

South Park

Lost

Firefly

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer

My So-Called Life

24

Freaks and Geeks

Coupling (BBC)

American Horror Story

Girls

And now, the WINNERS —

No. 15 —Mad Men

Mad Men has been a giant influence for years now, from the amazing characters like Peggy, Don, and Pete, to its beautiful, restrained look at a bygone era.  Its only not higher on my list because it’s become too restrained for my case — I just want to have my favorite characters in the same room talking about things that matter and yes, I’ve watched for hours waiting for Pete and Peggy to talk to each other.

No. 14 — Justified

An odd choice, since I’ve only seen the first two seasons so far, but the quality of dialogue and the acting is transfixing.  “I don’t think of myself as an angry man.”  “Raylan, you’re the angriest man I’ve ever known.”  Shivers.

No. 13 — Nip/Tuck

Now with this one, I’ve only seen the first few seasons but I’ll never forget them.  This show is classic Ryan Murphy — funny, daring, heartfelt, cold, warm, and with lines and characters you can’t stop thinking about.  Other Murphy shows just missed the cut.  Christian is a character for the ages, and the way he’s subverted by his experiences makes you rethink human nature.  He’s a bit like a Damon Salvatore as explored by Ryan Murphy — to which I say ‘Oh hell yes!’

No. 12 — Life on Mars (UK)

This is one of those perfect series, a phrase that you rarely hear on TV.  The American version was good too — but this one’s great.  This is another era done right; its version of the ‘70s is letting it all hang out, with the clothes and lingo taking a back seat to the sexism, racism, and the police’s occasional brutality.  But at the heart of all that is a hero who wants to get home and wants to discover the childhood (and father) he never really had.  Heartbreaking and awesome — can you dig it?

No. 11 — Sherlock (BBC)

Another near-perfect series.  I had my doubts about this one (and had always only been a light Sherlock Holmes fan) and yet it’s been fantastic, shaking the source material up and turning two of our best British actors loose to charm the pants off the audience.  The creators said they only do three episodes every few years because they want to only have the highest quality of writing — and it shows.

Sherlock Holmes: Punch me in the face!

Dr. John Watson: Punch you?

Sherlock Holmes: Yes, punch me in the face! Didn’t you hear me?

Dr. John Watson: I always hear “Punch me in the face” when you’re speaking but it’s usually subtext.

No. 10 — Doctor Who

Doctor Who is the ‘It’s so fluffy!’ line from Despicable Me turned into a series: you simply can’t deny that much excitement, passion, and joy.  It makes you glad such things exist in the world.  And yet it has a profound heart, and a real understanding of humanity that makes this such a long-running favorite.  The Doctor loves the human race in a way we ourselves often can’t, and yet at the end of the day he must stand apart from the things he loves.  Also, probably the best idea ever for a TV show.

No. 9 — Lost

This is my love it/hate it entry.  The series went on a bit long, I abhorred ‘sideways world’ and yet . . .  Great writing makes me say, “Oh!  I’m so jealous — I wish I’d written that!” And I went around all the time I was watching seasons 2 and 3 thinking that.  It wasn’t perfect, but man, it was on SO much of the time, and it brought adventure and mystery to the small screen in a way I’d never seen before or since.

No. 8 — The West Wing

I just started watching this show this year and it’s already made the top ten.  I mean, come on!  How couldn’t it?  It’s Lincoln meets The Social Network.  The characters (and actors) are some of the best ever put together (and they are so often together, in the same room talking about important things).  And the story lines make you remember what HBO made you forget: that great dramas don’t need violence and sex to have truly great drama.  This show has actually made me a better person who cares more about her world.

No. 7 — Spongebob Squarepants

‘Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?’ And so starts some of the funniest, sharpest writing anywhere on TV (I recommend seasons 2 and 3 for maximum laughs).  Spongebob must be a spiritual sibling to the Doctor, because they both live life to the fullest.  The number of quotes that are still spoken daily by me attests to its staying power.  “I’m ready!  I’m ready!’

No. 6 — My So-Called Life

This show was a couple of spots higher and I had to move it closer to number one.  I had heard about it for years and figured I’d like it, but it was just such a perfect dream of character, identity, growing up, and remaining a child that I liked it even more than I thought I would.  And that last scene with Brian — wow — it pretty much influences me (and my writing of Fall Street) to this day.

No. 5 — Firefly

This is the perfect Joss Whedon show in my mind (I’ve only seen one season of Buffy so that might change).  It has it all — super original characters, a great setting, well plotted episodes, and the best funny dialogue written possibly ever.  Come for the charming captain, and stay for his shiny crew.

No. 4 — The Vampire Diaries

I know, I know.  Believe me, I get it.  For a long, long time I never watched a Vampire Diaries even though I like Jane Austin, romantic comedies, and supernatural stories.  I figured it would be vapid, dumb, cruel, and just about guys walking around with their shirts off all the time.  On top of that, I hadn’t thought Ian Somerhalder was that great on ‘Lost’, so who would want to see him as a lead?  How wrong I was.  The Vampire Diaries turned out to be a perfectly plotted show which teases you AND builds over each season.  It is that rarest network show that is going somewhere with its lead characters.  And Elena is a Harry Potter not a Bella and her friends and family mean everything to her.  And Ian?  He blows the doors off the place as Damon and makes him one of the most compelling, most misunderstood anti-heroes in modern television.  Even if he does walk around with his shirt off a lot.

No. 3 — The Simpsons

I did a list like this many years ago and The Simpsons was number one — it says a lot that I watch it much less now and yet it still looms so large.  The show would win awards from me based only on the volume of great TV it’s given — the sheer number of lines, gags, and firsts make it the great elder statesman of today’s cartoon families.  Don’t like The Simpsons?  “Release the hounds!”

No.2 — Deadwood

Some people started with the Sopranos or OZ as their gateway drug into cable drama.  For me, it was Deadwood.  I knew it as ‘That show that won awards and everyone was always cursing’.  Then I sat down with the first season DVD and was awestruck — this was TV, not as I’d grown up with it (TV comedies and stalwart 10:00 pm dramas), but exciting, masterful, and so funny.  Not every story line later on was a winner, yet still, taken together I never saw a world like Deadwood, SD, and never again have met people like Al, Jane, or Trixie.

No. 1 — True Blood

Once upon a time all I knew of Alan Ball was American Beauty and all I knew of the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries was their bright, cartoony covers on book shelves.  Then all that changed.  Bon Temps and its residents came into my heart full force and the romance, humor, humanity, and magic of the place can never be forgotten.  When I watch True Blood (I’ve only seen through season 4) I see so many great things that I want to learn to do in my own stories — and having a kick-butt heroine like Sookie is at the top of the list.

It’s worth clicking on to read it 😉

“You Can’t Get Firefly by Rebooting Bonanza.”

My sister Sarah said the above quote and I thought it was so true.

We live in a swirling media storm of sequels, re-boots, re-imaginings, prequels, adaptations, updates, and spin-offs.  Our summer movie slates are full of sequels and three-quells and our fall movie schedules are full of play and book adaptations.  The new season of TV brings spin-offs of popular shows and a new take on 1820’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

First off, the pros: there is a lot to be said for stories and characters so popular that they last year after year and the demand is still there.  Arthur Conan Doyle famously tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes but Holmes was so popular that he was brought back and continues to this day in a series of blockbuster movies and two (!) TV shows.  The world is better for his continued presence.

And if you love a book series like Harry Potter then of course it’s fun to see it brought to life as a movie.  And lot of my favorite movies are from older material, from Pride & Prejudice to The Avengers.

But what you are getting is a predefined quantity, be it for good or ill.  A beloved book series should come across largely unchanged as a movie, and a ‘re-invention’ of a ‘50s TV series may lose the charm without gaining anything new.

Honestly, most of my favorite movies and shows are originals.  There has been much made of the ‘non-success’ of some of this summer’s original movies like Pacific Rim and After Earth, but the failure of sequels and spin-offs is more insidious and harder to point out.

Sequels often make a little more money and get a little more coverage but they are broken just as often — that speaks to bad writing, which crosses all borders.  Even good takes though, have one powerful missing ingredient — the power to make us see something we’re never seen before.

I just finished watching season one of Girls and I’m sure it draws on many old shows but it was very exciting as a viewer to have no idea where it was going.  Most every convention was turned on its head brilliantly by the end of the season and Lana Dunham’s fresh voice kept me tuning in.

Which brings me to the final point, in the end it’s not about where a premise originated from, it’s about how fresh those ideas and the voice telling them is.  Imagine in your mind an actual story-teller, up on a stage, his voice hoarse and worn-out as he treads over the story he’s told to this same group a hundred times.  Now imagine a ‘fresh voice’ speaking up out of the crowd, then walking up to the stage and telling the same stories of love and lose, of hope and heartbreak that mankind has been telling since the dawn of time — but this time the story feels different, the characters arrest you, and the plot zigged right when you thought it would zag.   It was truly like nothing you’d even seen before.

All that and they juggled baby geese.