Month: July 2017

My Vicarious Life

Being a writer is not what you’d call an adventurous job. Generally, it’s a job spent at a computer, sometimes at home, sometimes at a coffee shop or other location. It’s often heavy with research, which can be entertaining as well as educational. But in no way is it adventurous.

So I feel safe in saying that all writers live a little vicariously through their characters. We write grand adventures and experience them through our protagonists. We write love interests who are “perfect” for us. You get the idea. But sometimes, we inject little things into our stories that seem utterly innocuous to the reader, but which have considerable meaning to the writer.

For example, when I was a college student at Penn State back in the 80s, I would visit a store called Book Swap every week. It was a used book store that also sold comic books. Today, it’s known as Comic Swap, and they’ve abandoned the used books and focus entirely on comics, games, and the like.

Drop on in – Fraser Street, between College and Beaver.

One day, I noticed a new store had opened right across the street from my comic dealer. It was a stationery store. This may come as a shock to some readers, but – as a writer – I really love pens and paper. And this place sold really nice pens, fancy paper, bottled ink… and the owner – a delightful woman appropriately named Joy – was a wonderful calligrapher. I adored this store. I would visit often, chat with Joy, occasionally commission her for some calligraphy work, but mostly just admire the goods, most of which I couldn’t afford, being a college student.

When I was writing Wish You Were Here, I decided to add a little touch that meant a lot to me. In the story, the protagonist – an Earth teen who has found himself in a strange world with magic and monsters – needs some income. So I gave him a job at a small stationery shop. And you’d better believe this was inspired by that store back in college. In the story, I was able to allow him to deal in pens and ink and fancy paper, just as I wish I’d been able to do.

It’s a small thing, basically meaningless to the reader, but it was a special thing I did just for myself. Call me indulgent.

See previous caption.

The Nittany Quill is still open and still across the street from Comic Swap. If you stop in, tell Joy I said hello.

 

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The Science in Fiction

Recently I read an (old) article that was complaining about the practice of pointing out scientific errors in movies. The author of the piece was quite worked up about it, and his basic argument was, “It’s fiction. Escapist entertainment. It doesn’t matter if the science is wrong! Shut up and enjoy the movie!”

Now, to a point, he’s right. Many films have scientifically inaccurate things that we can overlook because they’re minor and don’t affect the plot. But once scientific ignorance does affect the plot, that’s when we, as writers, should have a real problem with it.

A lot depends on the type of story you’re telling, of course. For example, superhero movies defy physics to a crazy degree. But the very idea of superheroes sets the tone for how much we’re going to ruin science. This is why we can accept that Tony Stark is not turned to mush inside his Iron Man suit during a nuclear explosion.

Iron Man: “What the hell?”

And more “serious” or “down to earth” stories should have limits that are even stricter, which is why we can’t (or shouldn’t) accept that Indiana Jones wasn’t turned to mush inside a refrigerator during a nuclear explosion.

Audience: “What the hell?”

The example I give in my fiction writing classes is the movie Jurassic Park. (Yes, I’ll suspend disbelief enough to accept that ancient DNA could still be viable, even though it degrades to be useless in about a million years.) What I’m talking about is a point, early in the film, where Dr. Grant is freaking out a kid in describing how velociraptors attack. And he says something to the effect of, “You freeze… because you think maybe the velociraptor’s visual acuity is based on movement, like the T-Rex. So if you’re not moving, it can’t see you.”

The first time I watched the film, I just sat there with my jaw hanging open. And in my head, I was screaming, “WTF are you talking about!? You cannot know that from studying bones!” Now, had this just been a throwaway line, I’d have been willing to let it go. But it wasn’t. Later in the film, this “fact” saved him from being eaten by a T-Rex.

Yes, stand still. I don’t like fast food.

The most unforgivable part of this shoddy writing is that it could have been shown that the T-Rex’s vision worked this way, since they’d been studying live dinosaurs. It could have been something they learned and Grant could have been advised of this when he arrived. So there was no need for the inaccuracy in the first place, which makes it all the more unforgivable, from a writing standpoint.

In the grand scheme of things, though, Jurassic Park’s scientific blunder is nothing compared to other films, some of which are ridiculously wrong on so many scientific things that they’re unwatchable. And yes, as a viewer/reader, I’m willing to suspend disbelief… but only so far. And as writers, we should respect our readers enough to care about keeping things accurate.

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Why You Should Torture Your Characters

Writing good characters can be torture. Or, at least, it should be.

Oh, I don’t mean for the writer. I mean for the character.

One of the biggest problems I see in novice fiction (and, um, many major Hollywood productions) is that the protagonists are never challenged to any real degree. I’ve read stories and seen movies wherein the hero practically waltzes through all the challenges without so much as breaking a fingernail.

Just gonna drop this here…

Good stories, though, lay setback after setback on the protagonist, making his or her ultimate success all the more rewarding to the audience.

“Where doesn’t it hurt?”

But let’s talk about this from the writer’s perspective. Challenging our characters is essential to a good plot. And let’s face it: it’s fun to write our characters into tough situations, to hurt them, to make them bleed and suffer and…

Um… yeah.

It’s easy to get carried away, too.

When I was writing Wish You Were Here, one of my test readers was my first wife. She was the one who first got to read new chapters, to see what new hell I was putting my hero through.

Sometimes, though, she didn’t need to wait to read them. She knew something was up when she’d hear my (easily mistaken for evil) laugh coming from the den, where I was writing.

“Oh, boy,” I heard her drawl from the living room. “What did you do to him now?”

What didn’t I do to him?

Could’ve been a lot of things. I admit I fucked him up pretty good, both physically and emotionally. But I did it not because I was sadistic, but because this was a character who had absolutely no reason to be successful in everything he attempted. Sure, I could have gone easier on him.

But where’s the fun in that?

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