Never Say This To a Woman. Ever.

 

sweater girl Remy Loz
Photo by Remy Loz, courtesy of StockSnap

 

Most of the anecdotes that come to mind when I consider the importance of knowing one’s audience have to do with pregnancy.

I could tell tales of the highly detailed ‘birth stories’ related to me by more experienced friends when I was still an innocent little unmarried lass. Kindly meant, but talk about terrifying…

I might also tell some of the stories random people would relate once I was obviously expecting: tales of delivery room drama, tragic losses, and parenting woes. Not exactly  topics you want to be thinking about as the “D day” looms.

Of course, after three rounds in the delivery room, these stories have lost any power to shock me. (Now I have my own to tell, ha HA! But I won’t…) Only one still stings. My best anecdote for this post comes from 10 months after my first child was born.

My cherished car, nearly rusted out from Minnesota’s winter road treatments and nearing the 300,000 mile mark, had begun making alarming noises. Single, I would have ignored them. With a baby in tow, it was time to find a replacement.

I’d never actually shopped for a car, and was mildly excited about the prospect. The salesman didn’t really inspire confidence, but he didn’t completely lose me until he asked THE QUESTION.

“So, when are you due?”

 

crying baby
Hold it together. Just…hold it together…sniffle…

 

In spite of the fact that I was sleep deprived and had, until that moment, been pleased with how quickly I was loosing the ‘baby weight’, I flatter myself I kept calm as I informed him that I was NOT pregnant.

He did not apologize.

He did however try to sell me several cars that were not only the wrong make and model, but cost several thousand dollars over the budget I’d given him. (Yes, yes. Now I know that I shouldn’t have told him how much I actually wanted to pay. At the time I thought that if I were just straightforward with him he would respect that…or something. Sigh.)

Gents, if you don’t already know this, I’m going to let you in on a tip.

Never assume a woman is pregnant.

Just, DON’T DO IT.

Unless the following apply, you are treading on dangerous ground.

  1. She’s so big she’s about to pop,
  2. She is in Baby’s R Us registering, AND
  3. You HEAR her say, “Yes, I’m due in x weeks!”

If all three requirements are met…I still wouldn’t risk it. Just wait for her to tell you herself.

pregnant
Quiz Time: Would it be all right to ask me? (See the numbered list above.)

ANYHOW. Deep breaths, on to the point.

That salesman utterly failed to know his audience. Because of this, he failed to make a sale.

As a writer, I don’t really like to think of myself as a salesperson, but as I put the finishing touches on my query, and prepare my first round of novel submissions, I’m feeling more and more like one.

How oh how am I to ‘sell’ my writing to literary agents, and convince them that they want to sell my work too?

I’m trying to ‘read’ people who I don’t know, and trying to choose ‘dream agents’ from lists of people I’ve never met. Not quite as terrifying as the birth stories, but still, a bit intimidating, isn’t it?

I’ve hunted the internet to  accumulate names of agents who seem like they might be a good fit. In an attempt to better understand this ‘audience,’ I’ve been applying advice from people who know much more about this than I do.

  1. Visit their website. Most of the agents I’ve looked at include the types of books they are seeking as part of their bio. This is valuable information. Just as a woman whose figure hasn’t magically “SPROINGED!” back into pre-pregnancy shape isn’t likely to welcome due date inquiries, a suspense novel is probably not going to entice an agent who specializes in non fiction.
  2. Check multiple sources. Most of the agents I’m looking into have public Twitter accounts, where they list their interests. I’ve also looked on mswl.com (Manuscript Wish List) to see who is looking for what, though it’s important to check that the wishes listed are current. Other sites like query tracker provide information about wait times on agent responses etc.
  3. Don’t use all of your names in one go. I was advised to divide up my list of agents rather than submitting to all of them at once. I’ve divided my list into three columns. Each column includes some ‘great’ picks, some that might fit, and a couple of long shots. That way, if I only get echoing silence in round one (or better yet, feedback on how to improve) I still have some solid querying options.

After all, whether querying, writing, or just meeting a female on the street with a suspicious looking bump, taking time to consider one’s audience in the first place can save a world of trouble in the long run.

 

 

 

 

 

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UNDER THE WIRE- the Stories of a POW Escapologist

I love a good survivor story.

I find tales of people who ‘beat the odds,’ ‘stayed the course, (or whatever cliché you prefer,) fascinating, as well as encouraging.

There is solidarity in suffering, and perhaps perversely, comfort in seeing that someone was able to survive much worse than whatever I might be struggling with.

I’ve had the privilege of reading a number of pretty amazing survivor stories through other bloggers. It seemed fitting to use today’s post to share one that I recently discovered.

Under the wire book cover

Bill Ash was a Texan, who disliked bullies. Thus, hearing the stories of Hitler’s conquests overseas, Bill decided that he would join the war, even if his country would not.

He traveled to Canada, gave up his U.S. citizenship, and ended up flying Spitfires with the RAF.

Bill loved to fly. “Once in the sky, a Spitfire pilot is alone- a hunter, an acrobat, and a warrior king. The only trouble in my case was that the king was about to be beheaded.” (pg. 9)

Bill’s plane was shot down in France. He was caught, arrested, tortured, and eventually imprisoned as a POW.

For many, imprisonment would spell the end of the war. Bill, however, was an officer. It was illegal for him to be pressed into forced labor. Instead, he was sent to a camp run by the Luftwaffe, where he continued to fight from the inside.

Bill and many of his fellow prisoners considered it their duty to cause as much trouble and to keep as many of their captors busy as possible. To do so, they became “escapologists.”

The tales Mr. Ash tells in this book are extraordinary. I grew up watching reruns of Hogan’s Heroes, and laughing at the absurdities. Some of the stories Mr. Ash shares could have fit well into an episode.

From the well-organized ‘Escape Committee,’ to digging tunnels under latrines, to secreting hand-made radios inside of table legs, the ingenuity of the POWs reads more like fiction than fact.

John_Banner_Bob_Crane_Hogan's_Heroes_1965
So, I’m just going over here to wreak havoc on your plans. Ok, Schultz?

Some have claimed that Steve McQueen’s character in The Great Escape was based off of Bill Ash. He did not agree with the comparison, not the least because of his lack of motorcycle skills. He did, however, know many of the men involved in the real-life Great Escape, though he was not available to participate in it himself.

The Great Escape

(Side note, if you haven’t seen the film, it’s worth your time. And if you need some levity afterwards, the spin-off below has some nice homages 🙂 )

Chicken Run

Full of laughter and sorrow, gross abuses and courageous kindness, Under the Wire is a fascinating story of survival.

After Dunkirk: The Fall of France

history books

Watching movies with my children is an exercise in patience.

“Who’s he?”

“What’s she doing?”

“How come he’s a llama now?”

Yes, I enjoy seeing them discover new worlds and sharing stories I love. It’s just difficult to enjoy the movies themselves, now that I am narrating as well as watching.

I have to remind myself that they’re little. They don’t have the background knowledge to ‘get’ the stories without a bit of help.

I felt like I’d fallen back into that role last year- the novice without a real clue of the big picture. You see, I thought I had a decent grasp of history, until I started studying it.

“Wait, who’s Reynaud? The Battle of Britain was…what exactly? Um…I thought the war only lasted four years…”

I recently posted a review for the movie Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Before diving into personal study of the Second World War, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know the significance of the name.

dunkirk poster 2

Apparently it was kind of a big deal…

Once the movie came out, I found that I wasn’t alone. A number of people I talked too weren’t familiar with the evacuation of Dunkirk, or many of the surrounding events.

The teacher in me got waaaaaaay to excited about that. The first reaction was to grab some REFERENCE MATERIAL!!!

“Oooh! Well, I can tell you all about this, and then this, and then this…”

BUT, as I’d like my friends to still answer my calls, I thought I’d periodically vent these urges into my blog instead.

Aren’t you excited?! 🙂

I am NOT going to attempt an exhaustive history. If you want that, pick up Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War. The abridged version is just over 1,000 pages, so it’s a hefty read, but worth it if you want a look at the period from the eyes of one of the major players.

It also won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so evidently I’m not the only one who enjoyed it.

Churchill book

Here’s my brief rundown on Life After Dunkirk: The Fall of France. *

Operation DYNAMO, the massive evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches and port of Dunkirk wrapped up on June 4th.

I’ll try to avoid ‘movie spoilers’ here, but for those of you who have seen it and wondered about the outcome of some plans mentioned by a naval officer towards the end, the evacuated included 112,000 Belgian and French troops. Ships even returned once more at the end of the operation looking for their French allies and retrieved 26,175.

While the rescue of the army was tremendously important, the evacuation cost a great deal in equipment.

7,000 tons of ammunition, 90,000 rifles, 2,300 guns, and 120,000 vehicles were left behind.

The British Army had saved most of it’s manpower, but how would they all be armed?

The evacuated men were given 7 days leave, and the leadership wrestled with planning the next steps as the fighting in France continued- and continued to go badly.

As Mr. Churchill’s memoir states, “we were subjected by our duty to France on the one hand and the need to create and effective army at home and to fortify the island on the other…First priority continued to be given to sending whatever trained and equipped troops we had, in order to reconstitute the British Expeditionary Force in France.” (Churchill 143-144)**

These efforts to reinforce the sagging lines couldn’t last for long. June 5th marked the beginning of the final phase of the Battle of France.

The remaining British divisions, joined with the French Army, tried to hold the line north of Paris along the Somme. The German attacks continued to punish them, but more was to come.

On June 10th, in spite of British and American attempts to keep the peace, Italy entered the war on the side of Germany. They launched their own attacks on France through the Alps.

On June 14th, Paris fell.

German invasion

Hitler in Paris

The Allies’ situation looked dire, but they had not given up hope.

Churchill had declared several times that his government would not seek peace with Germany, no matter the fate of France. He and M. Paul Reynaud, the French Premier, discussed options for the French to continue their fight from a government in exile in North Africa.

Not all of the Allies were so optimistic. The French General Weygand and other were convinced that all was lost. One commented, “In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.” (Churchill 213)

The negative pressure was too strong. Reynaud was replaced by Marshall Petain, who quickly sought an armistice with Germany.

This pro-German government would be set up in Vichy, France- hence that quote from Casablanca when Rick asks Louis if he’s pro-Vichy or Free French.

(You don’t remember that one? You should probably watch Casablanca again. It’s always a good choice!)

Casablanca

On June 17-18th the French troops were informed that all was over. The armistice was signed, and all fighting officially ceased by the 25th. (All fighting, that is, by the army. I hope you’ve heard some of the stories of the courageous French Resistance!)

The British troops, along with over 20,000 Poles, “repeated now on a considerable scale, though with larger vessels, the Dunkirk evacuation.” (Churchill, 193) In all, 156,000 men and 310 guns crossed the Channel.

It’s an interesting bit of ‘history hindsight’ that at this point the USSR and Germany were on friendly terms. On the same day Paris fell, Moscow sent an ultimatum to Lithuania, and the Soviet Union proceeded to use the events in the West to annex the Baltic States. According to Churchill, Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, congratulated the Germans on their “splendid success” on June 18th, after the fall of France. This was almost exactly a year before Hitler’s brutal attack on the Russian Front.

Her nearest ally out of the fight, Britain prepared her shores for Hitler’s inevitable assault.

Some writing blogs will likely come in between, but…

Coming Soon: The Battle of Britain!

spitfire

*If you like visuals, here’s an excellent animated map which shows these events.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/interactive/animations/wwtwo_map_fall_france/index_embed.shtml

**Any quotes cited above are from Their Finest Hour, the second volume of Winston Churchill’s six volume set of memoirs of the Second World War. Page numbers are from the separate volume, not from the abridged one.

 

Exploding Rats Didn’t Fit

teacher
Photo by Michal Jarmoluk via Snapstock

“And remember, lecture is the least effective method of teaching.”

My class dutifully noted this point, then settled in to listen to our professor’s extensive lecture on the other methods we ought to use.

cat asique-alam-69936-unsplash
Photo courtesy of Asique Alam via Unsplash

The temptation to slip into lecture-mode is strong for experts on any subject.

This includes writers.

Who doesn’t like to go on a bit when given the chance? If you’re like me, you do your research, your background work, your world-building, and quiver with excitement as your little paper universe finally takes shape. It is so tempting to stand before your audience and share, share all of it!

It is tempting to forget that perhaps they don’t care about all of the background details- the minutia of shoe styles or the history of farming techniques etc.

I love reading history. I love finding interesting tidbits to tuck into my writing. I don’t love how easy it is for these tidbits to pile up into blocks of text that choke the flow of the story. Researching my current project, set in 1939-1946, presented waaaay more information than I needed, but I wanted to use it ALL!

I was fascinated by ways the people on the Home Front adapted to restrictions and rationing. Of course I would have to write about wedding dresses made from old parachutes and knitting projects using pet fur…somehow!

Then there were the cloak and dagger stories. Spies! Code breakers! Exploding Rats! (Yes, I said EXPLODING RATS!)

Flail tanks! Oooh, I’d never heard of flail tanks!

flail tank

Of course, I realized that (as far as I could find out) flail tanks didn’t factor in to the areas I was writing about, for obvious reasons…

hitthedirt
Cartoon by Bill Mauldin

At that point I realized my danger, and asked the big question. Where does detailed world-building morph into eye-glazing lecture?

The answer is simple, even if the execution is not.

Information shared for world-building, whether historical or fantastical, must serve the story.

If it doesn’t serve the story, it needs to go.

As fun as it might be to have a character just happen to walk past a flail tank, and have them ask about it, and have someone else give a detailed description…well, that doesn’t sound fun at all, does it? It sounds forced and stilted.

Interesting background details that require long explanations and do nothing to forward the plot lose their interest value quickly.

I have read numerous books and articles which will contribute nothing to my current project, but I don’t count that as a loss. I learned from them, got a stronger sense of the era I was writing about, and maybe I’ll finally get someone into Norway in another book. Or into a tank. Or stopping baddies with exploding rodents!!!

rat
A pest, a pet, or a weapon? Image courtesy of Pixabay

Sometimes a bit of lecture is unavoidable.

My male lead ends up at Monte Cassino, a MAJOR battle site on the Italian front. The story in this section of book would make no sense without an idea of the landscape and the history.

My first attempt was dry. Rereading it, I could almost picture myself at the front of a classroom with a chalkboard and pointer.

I asked a few questions of myself, which helped improve the writing.

Rather than a big ‘ol block of text, could the information be woven into the story, or at least presented in shorter paragraphs and phrases?

Could the information be better conveyed by a conversation?

Could the reactions of the characters set the mood- for instance, rather than the old monastery on the mountain looking “threatening,” perhaps the characters could move or speak in a way that shows fear.

It all comes down to the ever popular bit of writing advice, “Show! Don’t Tell!”

NOW, like most advice, the above is subjective.

For instance, I had a couple of professors whose lectures I loved. One would tell us about his expeditions to Antarctica. Another would occasionally slip jokes into his lectures hidden under a perfect dead pan- only those of us who kept sharp knew how funny he was.

There are popular authors who give immense lectures in their books. I immediately think of one who writes military fiction and one who has warned us about the inadvisability of dinosaur theme-parks. Both have been successful and had movies made from their work.

How do we decide on the strongest way to tell our stories? One of the best pieces of teaching advice that I received was, “Do everything with a purpose.”

Whatever style of writing we employ, we should do so purposefully, to best convey our story and to share the joy of it with the readers who come along on the journey.

Writers, have you found any techniques to keep lecturing/ info-dumping tendencies in check?

Many thanks for visiting!

Harold Lloyd versus Snarf: Old Plots in New(er) Settings

thundercats poster

“So, you know that episode of Thundercats I was finishing?” my husband asked one morning.

“Urnghuh? Um…sure,” I answered, my foggy tones conveying that no, I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet. I wrestled my hair into order with a scrunci and tried to look awake.

“It had the same plot as that Harold Lloyd movie we watched yesterday.”

harold lloyd

That got my attention. “What?”

“Grandma’s Boy, the Harold Lloyd movie? It was the same as the Thundercats episode.”

For those of you not familiar with these two entities, Harold Lloyd was a famous comedic actor, known for a shy persona juxtaposed against daredevil stunts.

Harrold lloyd
CGI? What’s CGI?

His career stretched from the silent films in the early 1900s all the way into the ‘talkie’ era.

IMDB sums up Grandma’s Boy:

“Always the mama’s boy, or in this case a grandma’s boy, Sonny joins a posse after a tramp accused of robbery and murder. He is unable to conquer his cowardice until Grandma tells him of his grandfather, also a coward, who overcame his fears with the help of a magic amulet. With new courage (and the charm), Sonny captures the fugitive and becomes the hero of the day.”

While I don’t imagine that the 1922 film was the first to use the idea of ‘the lucky charm that gives courage,’ it certainly wasn’t the last.

Enter a 1987 cartoon, in which a cat-lizard creature on Third Earth needs to save his more physically capable friends. He lacks courage until…you guessed it…he gains a ‘magical’ talisman. Which doesn’t end up being magical at all. Just like in Harold Lloyd’s film…

snarf
Don’t mess with Snarf!

Of course the two stories are different. Different setting, characters, medium of presentation…but the bones of the story are the same.

The question, I think, is whether this is a failing in the stories.

I’d say, no. (Edited to: Not always.)

Is it any surprise that ideas get reused? After all, in the wisdom literature of the Bible’s Old Testament the author acknowledges,

What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

This was, oh, about 2,500 years ago…

I asked my husband the obvious question. “Which was better?”

He thought for a moment. “Thundercats.” *

Huh.

Writers, I find this encouraging. If your story idea isn’t exactly original, it doesn’t mean that it is unusable. A new voice might breathe new, exciting life into an old story.

Cat-lizards don’t seem to hurt either.

 

My conclusion: If you use an old theme, make sure you do it well!

thundercats
It would’ve been better if we were the stars, Wily Kat!

What about you, readers, writers and watchers- has anyone else seen this same plot used elsewhere? I’m away from my computer for a bit this week, but I’d love to hear your thoughts when I’m reunited with it! 🙂

Many thanks for visiting.

 

*Disclaimer 1: My husband just gave me a hard time about ‘lying to my readers,’ so here is a disclaimer. All conversations are approximated. “Baby brain” ensures that I don’t actually remember things like words people say to me anymore. If I actually remember having a conversation pre-coffee, I count that as a win. 🙂

 

 

A View to a Query

Inspiration blog
Photo by Brodie Vissers, courtesy of Stocksnap

I’ve done it!

I’ve managed to produce a query letter that I don’t hate!

I’m not quite ready to admit to liking it, but I am ready to admit that it’s not too bad. (For a complete listing of acceptable emotional responses from my upbringing, see my post  Deepest Fears #2: Writing the (Gulp!) Love Scene)

Hours of fretting over this miniscule 200 word piece produced nothing but a few scattered sentences with no connective tissue- dry bones on the valley floor. Lifeless. Useless.

Then came the moment of change. To use the word “miraculous” seems presumptuous, but it certainly feels like something came from nothing. I woke up this morning, and the words were there, all laid out and formatted perfectly in my head.

Unwilling to lose the moment, I grabbed an unused Christmas card off of the floor and the first writing utensil that I could find- a dull, red, colored pencil. (Ahem. I may not be the best housekeeper.)

Joy of joys, the words still made sense post-coffee. I’d done it!

Yes… I’d done it, but how? Where did the inspiration come from? What changed internally or externally that finally broke the block?

Is creative inspiration is just the resurfacing of bits of background knowledge that have stewed together long enough for the subconscious to make them into a new thought? Or is it something that can be tracked down manually, by following the right steps? Or is it different for each individual?

I think I traced the roots of my novel, but how the sources managed to inspire what I’ve written is still a mystery.

Scan_20170617 (4)
Sometimes I doodle. Don’t worry, I explain it in the next part.

I had expressed my dislike for the James Bond franchise to my husband some time ago. On closer questioning, he discovered that the three films I had seen were what he would consider the worst of the bunch. The solution: watch them ALL with me. (This included the unofficial one Sean Connery did after he was retired from the role.)

Mix in the fact that I had just rediscovered my love of Agatha Christie’s cozy mysteries and had just begun reading aloud The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe with my children and voila! I was visited by a dream detailing the climax of my story in vivid color. While it didn’t look a thing like the three sources I believe it sprang from, I can see little bits of influence from Bond, Christie, and even Lewis. (No, it doesn’t include anyone throwing killer hats. I wish…)

Of course a climactic scene does not a story make. The who’s and why’s and wherefore’s presented themselves as I let my mind wander while washing dishes.

The inspiration was just there without me seeking it out. I didn’t have to do any real work on the story until I started research.

In the end I don’t have any great thesis to present for why ideas come how and when they do.  I’m just grateful that they do, and for the chances I have to capture them before they slip away.

Now, if only I can stay on this ‘inspiration high’ and keep myself from picking my query apart again.  (Of course the word ‘problem’ in the second paragraph may not be the best word choice… hmm….)

edit

Writers, where do you find your inspiration? Is it more a process or a revelation? Do you work better within defined roles, or in open-ended situations?

Deepest Fears #2: Writing the (Gulp!) Love Scene

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

Dunkirk

It takes a special film to get my husband and I out the door and into a theater.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk managed it.

The story behind the movie caught my attention a year and a half ago. I began writing a story set in 1943, fairly confident that I knew World War 2 well enough that I would be able to flesh it out with just a little research.

Surprise! A 6 year war involving most of the world was a bit more complex than I remembered from highschool history. In particular, mentions of ‘the bracing defeat at Dunkirk’ kept appearing in my searches.

Dunkirk? What IS that- and what in the world do they mean by a bracing defeat?

I looked it up. I realized that if I didn’t know about this event, I knew nothing about the era I was trying to understand. The real research began…

For those of you who, like me, don’t know the significance of Dunkirk, I’ll try to summarize.

Hitler’s Germany, after a long period of threatening actions in Europe, invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.

And…the war stalled. Little actual fighting took place as the Allies waited behind France’s defensive Maginot Line. (This time period was nicknamed ‘the phoney war.’)

Months later, in the spring of 1940, Hitler made his move. The Blitzkrieg, or ‘lightning war,’ smashed the French and British defenses. The Allies were driven back, and back, and back. Finally, the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force ended up marooned on Dunkirk beach, waiting for Hitler’s troops to capture or kill them, or for rescue to arrive from across the Channel- a miracle that would get them home.

This is the point of the story where the film begins.

dunkirk poster 2

Without giving anything away, (though, if you know the history, you know the overall outcome,) here are a few of my impressions.

Rather than tracking the broad military strategies and leadership of the day, Nolan choose to follow a few of the ‘regular people’ of the conflict: young soldiers trying to survive, RAF pilots flying their Spitfires across the Channel, hoping to have enough fuel to be of some help to the troops and evacuation ships, and a civilian sailor doggedly facing challenges at sea as he heads across to help in the evacuation.  I liked this choice. Since I knew how the battle came out, following individual characters kept the suspense high as I wondered whether they would survive.

I haven’t really cared for dogfight scenes in other films; Dunkirk surprised me. The aerial scenes were well done- it was, as my husband said, the most successful attempt we’ve seen to put the audience into the cockpit. Of course, I also like Spitfires 🙂

The writing and dialogue impressed me. Having just watched a few movies with chronic over-explaining in them, (Revenge of the Sith…shudder,) the carefully placed words and silences gave the feeling of observing actual events rather than of sitting through a movie.

Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is also worth noting.  I didn’t find it musically interesting- it’s not the sort of thing I’d buy and listen to for fun. However, he used a variety of sounds to punctuate and accompany the action. In particular, a sound of a ticking clock in the background created a sense of urgency, of time slipping away.

On the negative side, the chronology of the film was somewhat confusing. The section of the film about the soldiers covered one week, the section about the boats one day, and the section about the planes one hour. Each of the sections was interspersed with the others so that the audience wasn’t away from one group of characters for too long, until the end when all of the threads came together. This was an interesting idea, but I didn’t feel that it was executed well. Some of the scenes became a bit repetitive since they had already happened in another timeline, and I was sometimes confused by what had happened and what would happen, as the timeline kept moving back and forth.

I’m not well versed enough in the uniforms and vehicles of the day to bring up critiques on misplaced or misapplied straps or webbing with any credibility- I’ll leave that to others. Overall I liked the ‘look’ of the film, though yes, I suppose the troops were still a little too clean, and their teeth were certainly too good for the era. 😀

SO, I’m giving Dunkirk my personal rating of 8 out of 10. (It’s a bit higher than it might be otherwise, because I like the era.) Chronologically confusing, it was still an interesting, well done ‘slice of history’ film, and worth the watch.

 

 

 

Whaddya Mean You Don’t Like My Protagonist?!

playground 1
Photo courtesy of Snapstock, by Adam Whitlock

Playgrounds are difficult. Supervising three children on our morning excursions leaves me longing for my afternoon coffee.

My eldest is an organizer. Last week she had half a dozen kids using the wood chips that covered the ground as ‘ice cream’ in a makeshift shop, which they ‘sold’ to other children, stashing other wood chips in a hole in the playset for a bank… it was elaborate.

My middle child has followed his big sister around for years, allowing her to run the games. That era seems to be ending. He will still go along, when he wants to, but he is also beginning to assert his independence. He spent most of that day trying to time out a run up the slide between other children sliding down.

My youngest just wants to play. She wanders and dreams and I try to steer her away from wandering too close to the swings, again.

I…I try not to hover. I keep a sharp lookout that they are all safe, but I try not to worry about the bumps and bruises, the dirty faces and the woodchips in their hair and whether the other children like them.

‘Try’ is the key word. How can I love my little crazies so much and not worry about them?

I feel some of the same anxieties for the characters in my stories.

After all, I have given them life, in a way. I’d like them to be happy in the little world I’ve made for them, able to muddle through their story and hopefully come out better for the journey.

The trouble is, like my children, these fictional people don’t live in isolation. They need to be able to play well with others,  but in their case, the others aren’t their peers. They are their readers.

No one wants their kid to be ‘that kid,’ the one left on the sidelines, the one desperate to be liked but forever lonely.

No author wants their creation to be ‘that character,’ the one readers write off as cliché or predictable or unlikeable.

However, my protagonists didn’t exactly come out of their first exposure to professional readers looking like the popular kids. My feedback from the Athanatos writing contest pointed out a number of weak points.

Please, don’t write this type of character- it’s overused.

She’s too sweet.

Avoid using this name- we see it all of the time.

And so on.

The critiques were kindly given, and meant to be helpful. Still, my first instinct was “Mama Bear.”

mama bear

WHAT? Oh yeah? Well YOU don’t know them! And I deliberately tried not to write her that way- GRRRRRAAAA!

When calm returned, I skimmed through my draft. Ok, some of the criticisms fit, maybe, but there were reasons why the characters acted that way…

Ah.

There was the problem.

I knew my characters backwards and forwards.

My readers didn’t.

I needed to do a better job of portraying my protagonists. Their motivations needed to be more clear if they had any hope of being likeable. With a goal in mind, I got to work.

“Likeability” Can’t Be Forced

From childhood experience, I knew that if my characters seemed overeager to be liked, they would probably fail. (I mean, how can you NOT like him? Look, he speaks in poetry, saves puppies, volunteers every weekend, everyone in the BOOK likes him, you HAVE TO LIKE HIM!!!!!) Like the ‘cool kids’ on the playground, they’d need to come by it naturally.

But, What Do They DO?

If you’ve written at all, you’ve surely heard the advice, ‘show, don’t tell.’ I searched out any places in the books where I said nice things about the character. If they made sense to the story, I kept them, but otherwise they were chopped. I searched out scenes where the characters showed admirable qualities, and strengthened them.

Flaws are Good.

No one likes a show off. I knew that my characters had flaws, and that these flaws drove them. My female protagonist is so overeager to maintain good relationships with her remaining family that she bends over backwards and sacrifices happiness to keep the peace, and inadvertently puts herself and others in danger. My male protagonist is so hyper-responsible that he almost gets himself killed because he can’t handle the guilt of someone else being hurt on his watch. Re-reading, I realized that I hadn’t shown the darker sides of these traits, and as a result they both just came off as ‘goody-two-shoes.’

 

I wrote and rewrote, trying to give my paper people room to breathe, to be flawed, to interact with others in organic ways.  Several drafts later, I hope that I am closer to realizing that goal!

A good character needs a balance of positive qualities and flaws, of personality quirks and inane normalcy to live and breathe and become more than just flat words on a page. They need these things, this attention to background to become likeable- more than that, to become relatable for their readers.

Writers- what tricks do you use to make your characters likeable? (Or at least interesting- whether a character needs to be likeable is another topic 🙂 )

Readers- what stands out about the story characters you love?

 

 

 

 

Getting Away

Any guesses where I’ve been?

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This was supposed to be a year without a vacation. Suffice it to say, life has taken some twists and turns, some pleasant, and some challenging.

On the bright side, some of these challenges resulted in a trip to Redwood National and State Parks in northern California.

I had all sorts of pithy writing topics jotted down to blog about after our return.  Unfortunately, the effort of not destroying my children after spending over twenty-four hours in a van with them has left my intelligence at low ebb.*

INSTEAD, I thought I’d share some of the lovely photos my husband took on our journey. Maybe they’ll provide someone with some writing inspiration as my brain re-charges.

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First, we must get the quintessential Redwood cheesy tourist picture out of the way.

I wasn’t so much impressed at the girth of the tree, but that the tree was still alive. The damage that these beauties- the tallest living things on Earth- can take is astonishing.

I was also impressed that our rental made it through safely. Maybe grateful is a better word, as we weren’t planning to have to rent a vehicle. The person who decided to steal our back tires and rims the night before we were to go changed our mind. Sigh….

Back to beautiful nature.

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IMG_9474The kids had a good time looking for Ewoks in the forest. They were unsuccessful-those little fuzzballs are stealthy!

Still, they enjoyed the flowers and tree tunnels and trails through the warm, damp forest.

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And they laughed and cheered as they ran over plank bridges under hanging walls of millions of dripping green ferns.

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As far as they were concerned, the only downside was that all of the beautiful nature kept us away from the playground at the old school house we stayed in. (Nope, I did NOT make that up.) IMG_9447

It had been converted into a rental, large enough for our family, with the bonus of a playground and gym. Peaceful evenings on the swing set, watching the local horses and the doe and two fawns who joined their grazing every night, closed each day.

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I tried to ignore the fact that an abandoned school house sounded like a perfect setting for a horror story. Especially since the little history that the owners left us said that it was built on native sacred ground. And it had a moose head hanging just above our bed… Evil Dead, anybody? Sometimes an overactive imagination is a bad thing!

Thankfully the children didn’t have any similar worries- they kept asking when we could stay there again.

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Our time in Redwood went too quickly- here’s hoping we can hold on to some of the peace of that wood as we ease our way back into the day-to-day grind.

And, here’s hoping you’re finding your own beautiful, peaceful places to enjoy this summer!

* I exaggerate. The kids did quite well, considering the distance. 🙂

 

 

The Big Parade: A Silent Story

 

Big parade posterI must admit, I was skeptical of my husband’s interest in silent films.

I had never seen one, but I thought I knew what to expect. Silent films equaled the jangle of organ-grinder style music, makeup resembling cake icing, and overacting reminiscent of the comedic scenes with Lena Lamont in Singing in the Rain.

With such low expectations, the Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd films he played for our family were a pleasant surprise. The comedy bits were engaging and creative, and the music was well-orchestrated. Best of all, the kids found the movies fascinating- this was something we could ALL enjoy!

By the time I unwrapped The Big Parade, I was prepared to give silent films the benefit of the doubt. Still, King Vidor’s serious film was a departure from Keaton’s comedic Steam Boat Bill Jr. How would a film about an American soldier’s experiences in France during World War 1 play out as a silent film?

I didn’t expect to find a new favorite movie.

The leading man, John Gilbert, plays a wealthy American with no real idea of war, who grows into a protagonist we can root for and weep for. Renee Adoree plays his love interest in France, and the two of them pull the viewer inexorably into the story until one can almost forget that in the entire film they haven’t spoken a word.

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While a silent film must lean heavily on the skills of its actors, creating one must have also posed interesting challenges for the writers. I wonder how much time it took to distill the text to its barest elements, highlighting the key points of the story without bogging down the pacing. Text that fit the situations would have to be chosen carefully, to tell the story, but also to avoid a fuss from the censors. (For instance, I suspect that the words to the song “In the Army Now” may have been edited for the film. “Rich” and “Son-of-a-gun” don’t quite rhyme…) However long it took, it was time well spent.

The attention to the story shines through the filming of each scene. One of the most powerful sequences is Gilbert’s introduction to battle. The following quote from imdb.com describes it very well.

“King Vidor recalled, “I timed the march of the US youth into battle and possible death as a slow, measured cadence with the muffled beat of brass drums heralding doom–a metronome to simulate exactly the gait of the soldiers”.

The sequence is eerie and tense and tragic, without the need for flashy special effects or gore. The story carries the emotional impact, even through a black and white movie made 92 years ago.

Another nod to the skillful writing of the film- it manages to be anti-war without diminishing the courage and the sacrifice of those involved. I could go on, but as The Big Parade demonstrates, sometimes fewer words make more impact!

Writers, Readers, and Movie Viewers: Have you found other areas in writing and filming where ‘less is more’?