Tuesday, April 21, 2015

#ISawThatComing: Fringe and Grimm

I think there’s some truth to the notion that there are only so many plots. Seven, eight, twenty-one...it doesn’t matter, the number is much smaller than the number of works published every day. In my genre, Romance, there’s a basic plot structure that all are measured against: Girl Meets Boy, Girl and Boy Come Apart (in some way), Girl and Boy Come Back Together and Girl and Boy Get Their HEA, or Happily Ever After.

Perhaps you’ve heard that Romance consistently pulls in a lot of money for its publishers year after year. There are some stories people can’t get enough of and that’s okay (from my perspective, it’s a good thing). But discriminating readers will still gnash their teeth- or just stop reading- if they feel that they are literally reading the same story over and over again.

As irritating as it is to read the same story again and again, it can be even worse to watch the same story on an infinite loop. (Someone needs to explain to me why television is becoming more and more predictable even as our viewing options increase.) I’ve been able to see through plots since I was ten years old (“Of course Alexis is threatening to tell Fallon that Blake isn’t her real father; she’s the only person Blake loves without any conditions!”) but it probably has gotten worse since I started crafting my own stories. I’ve honestly lost count of how many times I’ve rolled my eyes and screamed at my television, but here are two that stand out:

Fringe Okay, maybe it’s not fair to pick on this show because I watched the @(#@^&!*( X-Files for years before that (and under duress for most of it), but every time I had to sit through an episode of Fringe I was unimpressed. The spooky dreams, the haunted victim of childhood experimentation, the mad scientist, the odd-looking humanoids, the shadowy government agency that might be working for good or evil and ultimately answered to themselves...yawn. And now cue the suspense...but did they know where it was going? (After the series finale, I’m not so sure they weren’t making it up as they went along.)

There's devoted parents...and then there was this guy
Points to the show for adding interdimensional travel? That was actually the final nail in the coffin for me. In an early episode, some reference to traveling between dimensions is made. About five minutes later, the Mad Scientist is having a conversation with his adult son about the time he was very sick as a little boy. “Really, Dad? I don’t remember that.” “I know you don’t, son.” At this point I shook my head. “Yeah,” I said drily, “because this guy’s son actually died and then he kidnapped his son’s double from the other dimension.” My husband thought that was crazy...until he saw a gravestone at the end of the episode which confirmed my theory. Or at least I think it was a gravestone; I didn’t even need to look at the screen to figure out what was going on.

Grimm If we’re going with The Seven Basic Plots, then Grimm is Overcoming the Monster- literally- every week. Nick Burkhardt is a detective in Portland, Oregon who discovers that he’s a Grimm, or a guardian who can see the true forms of human-monster hybrids (wesen) and protects others from them as necessary. Throw in some very old history with the powerful Royals and the fact that many wesen have a grudge bordering on a vendetta against the Grimms, then add that Nick is holding down a normal job while also maintaining relationships with human beings and this should be pretty exciting...but it’s falling short. 

Juliette is Nick's true love...
but it's a shame the show didn't have better reasons to put Juliette with Sean and Nick with Adalind
It’s not just that the dialogue is stilted- with one eye on the screen and the other in a book, my husband can predict what the next line is going to be- it’s that the story beats are so easy to guess even when they don’t make sense. If I see two good-looking actors of the opposite sex alone, it’s a pretty good guess that there’s going to be some romantic entanglement (or that they’re just going to have sex); if they do, there’s a good chance that someone’s going to get pregnant. This will hold even if it’s not in keeping with the characters, and the show will invent some convoluted reason why it will be so. Most recently, Nick's girlfriend Juliette was turned into a Hexenbeist (basically, a witch) to justify a partner switcheroo. It's a weird case of a nonsense plot twist to rush characters into something you saw coming a mile away.

Predictability isn’t the ultimate litmus test. And yet...Grimm is arguably more predictable than Fringe, but I will happily spend time watching that whereas Fringe felt like nails on a chalkboard to me. For me, the key is that I feel secure that Grimm has, basically, an idea of where it’s going in the series, while Fringe made me feel nervous about investing time into something that was going to implode under its own weight (did I mention it was a JJ Abrams’ show?). I’m happy to trade a little bit of finger-snapping surprise if I feel like the journey over all is going to be satisfying.

What about you?

Please be sure to visit my friend Caroline Fardig tomorrow as she shares her thoughts on predictability.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The "I Totally Saw That Coming!" blog hop

Whether you write your own stories or whether you read/watch a lot of other people's, you start to pick up on certain themes. You may have become...how can I put this nicely...a difficult viewing partner on more than one occasion. "Hello! That woman is totally going to be the murderer because she just dropped a reference to something completely out of left field that's obviously going to mean something at the end," you sigh. Or "he's totally going to be the murder victim because he's just screwed over everyone in the first twenty minutes." (Okay, that one's really easy.) Or "That's totally someone's long-lost child."

The person next to you may scoff...until you're proven right at the end. Or they'll mutter "Yeah, thanks, I didn't want to enjoy this anyway." Or there may not be a person next to you at this point, because everyone is so used to you seeing through the plots that they don't want to watch anything with you anymore.

Is it your fault that everything's so predictable?

For this blog hop, some other writers and I are going to be exploring predictability: those times when something was so predictable it took you out of the story, and maybe those times it didn't matter because something else about the story (the acting, the direction, the motivation, whatever) was so good. And then some of us (well, maybe just me) are going to be writing about the times when something *wasn't* predictable at all; a lot of times that's a big help, but sometimes it's not enough- and sometimes it's too much (anything that's predicated on too many "gotchas" is missing other essential elements).

It was a dark and stormy night...oh just kill me now.
Here's the schedule for the blog hop. Please visit all of their posts and let them know what you think was the most- and least- predictable of things you've seen or read.

Monday, April 6, 2015

So You're Writing A Self-Help Book...

As you know, in addition to writing fiction and blogging, I’m also a reviewer. I have less time to review now than I used to, but I still pick up the occasional offers. I’ve read my fair share of Self-Help books for review...and I think we need to talk.

Here’s one of my dirty little secrets: I’ve read Self-Help books for years and have some sense of what works. I really, really have no interest in things like Women Who Love Too Much or Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (blech and double blech), but I have enjoyed everything that Zac Bissonnette has written so far (which is a sign of what a great writer he is because I am sooo not his target audience). I’ve also read more guides on fitness than most people know exist, and I not only used to read books on fashion and beauty (or, more accurately, wardrobe advice, cosmetics application and hair styling tips), I used to seek out old, out-of-print guides when I was younger. I mean, I remember sitting in the back room stacks of the Cambridge Public Library in the Eighties reading things that were published in the mid Sixties, and one of my favorite guides on skin care for adolescents was published in the Seventies. And I’ve perused plenty of titles on personal finance, education, programming, time management and organization, among others.

One of my favorite books, and not an exaggeration to say it changed my life
In general, Self-Help text is going to be easy to read because the authors want to throw out as wide a net as possible. This isn’t a criticism; if anything, I’d say this is a requirement, and it should be. There is also not going to be a lot of text, at least relative to titles that are providing analysis and/or history of an issue.

Brevity doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but let’s not get carried away: some of the titles I’ve seen in the last few months would be better as a monetized blog post and not an ebook. If you can’t write more than ten thousand words on a subject, please step back and reconsider whether it’s something you should be putting on Amazon or Smashwords, even if it’s free. And if it’s not free...do you really want to charge ten bucks for sixty pages? Really?

The basic problems these books are trying to help us solve haven’t changed- we’ve been trying to make limited resources do more for centuries, and we’ve all wanted to look taller, thinner and wealthier with high cheekbones, full lips and almond shaped eyes for at least fifty years- so it has to be presented in a way that speaks to your contemporaries enough that you’ll keep them through the end of your short book. One way to do this is through real-life examples, be they testimonials or anecdotes; provide some kind of proof that someone else has taken your advice and been better for it before you clicked Publish on Kindle Direct Publishing’s dashboard. If you are going to talk only about your own experiences, then tell a compelling story about yourself. In other words, be engaging and take me on your journey. Even more importantly, use your skills as a writer to convince me that I can and should follow you on that same path.

...whereas this was one of the worst things I ever read, and I only finished it because it was required for a retreat
It also can’t be overstated how important it is that these things be visually appealing. For certain things, like fitness and grooming, photos and/or illustrations are essential, and I would argue that most other categories are going to benefit from them as well. (No matter what your budget, spend some money on an original cover. A good designer does not have to cost you a lot of money but will be worth their weight in gold.) But if you’re not going to include illustrations, you can still do a lot with your text. Change the font of your section headings, move away from Times New Roman, block of portions of the text (quick tips, lessons, anecdotes, etc.) into boxed sections (maybe with a grey background), create lists and use boldface, italics and underlining when appropriate. Obviously stay professional (emoticons and colored text should always be avoided), but professional doesn’t have to be boring.

The best Self Help is common sense, but that’s not a bad thing. As we’re inundated with garbage science, get rich quick schemes and politicians, entertainers and media figures who profit from making readers and viewers afraid, reminders of common sense can be good things. So if that’s something you want to publish, be proud. Now figure out a way to do it well.