Saturday, January 28, 2012

Writing Contest: Describe My Character

To be awarded to wikinews writing contest winnersImage via Wikipedia

How much description is too much?

Writers often struggle with this question.  Should you describe your main character's hair color?  Hair length?  What type of clothes she wears?  Her facial expression? Her living room?

There are no easy answers, as suggested by a conversation I recently had with a group of fellow writers.

One writer, the talented  Eve Brackenbury (who also owns Prospero’s Parkside Books in Blue Spring, MO, where I did a reading along with members for my writing group on Thursday night), asked each of us to describe the layout of the house in a novel by one of the other writers.  

Even though we’d all read the book, each of us described the house differently.

I then asked the others to describe Damon, the main character in my novel-in-progress, The Power Club™.  Again, responses varied: Damon was stocky or slim, he had brown hair or reddish-brown hair, he looked like a younger version of me, etc.

And that’s how it should be.

As Eve noted, writers should give each character or setting just enough description to tell the reader what she needs to know and allow the reader's imagination to take it from there.  Too much description can prove jarring to the reader, particularly if it’s not clear from the outset.  There’s nothing more annoying than visualizing a living room on the left side of the house as you enter and discovering two chapters later that it's actually on the right.

And, really, does it matter if Reader A’s impressions are the same as Reader B’s?  Each reader constructs the story in his or her head based on the words on the page.  If some readers see Damon as stocky, their right.  If others visualize a slim darkspace caster, they're right, too.

But our conversation left me wondering: How do other readers visualize Damon?  

Let’s see if we can find out.

Announcing the First-ever Semi-Great Gildersleeve Writing Contest

The goal is simple: describe my character.

First, read excerpts from the book – the prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and the bonus story, “Santa Drives a Chevrolet” – to get a sense of the character.  (Note: Feel free to ignore the silhouetted images on Chapters 1-3.)

Then let your imagination run wild.

If you’re an artist, you may draw the character.  If you’re a writer, write a paragraph describing him: his hair color, hair length, build, clothes, how he carries himself, etc.  What is he doing?  How does he look when he's using his power?    

The only clue I’m going to give you is Damon’s age: In most of the novel, he’s 13.  In the prologue, he’s six.  In “Santa,” he’s nine.

I’d prefer entries to focus on the 13-year-old Damon, but, if you’ve got a wonderful idea for how one of the younger versions looks, knock yourself out.

**Copy your description or drawing into a comment below.  Be sure to include to include a link so I can contact you if you've won the prize.  Entries must be in the comments field by no later than noon on February 21.  I'll hold a drawing for the prize on February 25.

The absolute BEST entry will get something special: a signed copy of my comic book, Gold Dust—rare, only a few copies are still available.

So, you can’t lose:  you get free publicity . . . AND you may get a free, signed comic book!

What are you waiting for?  Sharpen those pencils, flex those fingers, and get cracking!

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

5 Beatles Secrets Every Writer Should Know

Paul McCartneyClockwise from top left: Ringo, John, George,and Paul
(Image via

A few years ago, a 29-year-old co-worker of mine said her birthday was July 7.  Being the ultimate fan/geek that I am, I told her she had the same birthday as Ringo Starr.

She seemed impressed.  Then she said, “Ringo Starr . . . wasn’t he in a band?”

For people of my generation, that would be like asking if Snookie is on TV or if George Washington ever served as leader of a country.

It always delights me when I see college-aged kids wearing Pink Floyd or Black Sabbath tee-shirts.  In some ways, that would be like me wearing a tee-shirt with a picture of Doris Day  a star popular in my mother's time.
Every generation selects its own heroes, musical or otherwise.  No one is obligated to honor the pop culture gods of the past, and that’s how it should be.

Yet part of me hopes the Beatles will always live on in the hearts and minds of others, because they were so significant to so many people for so long.

Besides, if you're a fan of today's music, you may discover there's a wealth of information about people who were popular before Lady Gaga, and this information can benefit you in ways you'd never imagine.

For example, the Beatles can teach us a lot about writing.  This is no small feat since they were musicians, not fiction writers (though John Lennon did write two books); yet the qualities which made them one of the most influential bands in the world can be adopted by writers.

1. Always grow.  The Beatles started out singing simple love songs such as “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me,” but they soon expanded their songwriting and wrote more complex music.  “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967) is less than five years removed from “Love Me Do” (1962), but it is miles apart in terms of compositon and experimentation.

“Come Together” (1969) shows the Beatles playing with words, while “Something” (1969) is a hauntingly beautiful ballad. 

As creative people, the Beatles never sat still.  Neither should you.

2. Study new instruments.  When the Beatles started in the late ‘50s, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison all played guitar.  A short time later, Paul switched to bass, and Ringo joined on drums in 1962.

Many musicians become known for playing one or maybe two instruments.  Not the Beatles.  After their commerical breakthrough, Paul took piano lessons and studied classical music.  George introduced the sitar, a middle eastern instrument, into the group.  All of the Beatles sang and took turns singing lead on different songs.

As writers, we can always learn new tools of the trade, such as new technology, new avenues for publishing, and new skills that our characters may use.

3. Find an expert/mentor to help you.  The Beatles benefited from their apprenticeship to George Martin, who had spent years as a staff producer at EMI and head of its Parlophone label before taking on these four scruffy lads from Liverpool.

If it wasn’t a match made in heaven, it should have been.  In the beginning, Martin called the shots in the studio, but, as the Beatles matured as songwriters and musicians, they exerted more control.  Nevertheless, they relied on Martin to produce all but one of their albums for a simple reason: he knew what he was doing.

Martin could take the Beatles’ vague musical ideas and translate them into workable results.  For example, he and engineer Geoff Emerick painstakingly edited two versions of "Strawberry Fields Forever" into a masterpiece  even though they were in different tempos and keys!

George Martin was in every sense a musical collaborator who guided the Beatles and knew when it was time to let them complete their journey on their own.

4. Stay true to your core values, beliefs, philosophy, or message.  Although the Beatles grew as musicians and songwriters, their core message remained remarkably consistent.  As late as 1967, they were singing “All You Need is Love,” and they carried their optimistic and simple visions of love into their solo careers: “Imagine” (John), “Silly Love Songs” (Paul), “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” (George).

Significantly, the Beatles did not record songs like "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" or "I Can See for Miles" –  great hits for the Rolling Stones and the Who, respectively, but which would have been startlingly out of place with the Beatles' vision of the world.

Your core values, beliefs or philosophy will come through your writing.  It may take several pieces for you (or your readers) to understand what your message is, but once it becomes clear, your readers will look forward to it in your work.

5. Know when to let go.  The Beatles broke the hearts of millions of fans when they broke up in 1970, but, for the four men involved, going their separate ways was probably for the best.  They had grown as individual artists, as their solo successes attest.  It was time for each Beatle to leave home and continue to grow on his own.

Likewise, as writers we need to know when it’s time to let a story go.  We’ ve worked on it, slaved over it, revised it countless times.  It will never be perfect, but it doesn’t have be perfect, just great.

There comes a time when every writer has to let it be.

Norman, Philip.  Shout!  The Beatles in Their Generation.  New York: MJF, 1981.
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Saturday, January 14, 2012

How To Avoid Writing a “Travesty”: What Avengers # 200 Can Teach You

The Avengers #200 (Oct. 1980). Cover art by Ge...Image via Wikipedia
Characters and Images © and ™ Marvel

What can a “travesty” of a story teach you about writing?

A lot, actually.

That word has been used to describe “The Child Is Father To . . .?” from Avengers # 200 (October 1980).

Fans throw words like “travesty” around all the time, but this condemnation comes from one of the story’s alleged co-writers, Jim Shooter.

Shooter (who was also then editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics) disavows any memory of working on or approving the story, but he agrees with fan opinion that the “The Child Is Father To . . . ?“ is both a "travesty" and “heinous”. 

And with good reason: the story features the kidnapping and seduction of a super-heroine, who is forced to give birth to her own abuser and then runs off to spend all eternity with him in limbo.

As someone once said, “Eeeew!”

But our disgust factor doesn’t begin to do the story justice.  When a sequel was published a year later, in Avengers Annual # 10, we learned just how flawed our heroes can be, how they took the villain’s account of things at face value, and how they unthinkingly betrayed one of their own.

Yet for all those reasons, Avengers # 200 can teach you to look at your own stories in a different way.

Earth’s Dumbest Heroes?

The story and its sequel are discussed in depth here.  A brief recap: The Avengers, billed as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” is a team that includes three of the Marvel Universe’s most popular heroes, Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man, along with fan favorites such as The Vision, The Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, The Beast (who graduated from the X-Men),  and . . . Ms. Marvel.

Never heard of Ms. Marvel?  Originally a supporting character named Carol Danvers, she was given powers and her own series in the 1970s to capitalize on the Women’s Liberation movement and the popularity of “Ms.” as a form of address.

But in 1980, with the Reagan Revolution just around the corner and the country starting to swing toward Conservativism, “Ms.” seemed like an antiquated title.  One article I read years ago theorized that this was the reason she had to be removed from The Avengers.

And removed she was.  In Avengers # 198, she discovers she’s pregnant in spite of insisting there can be no father (apparently, the word “virgin” was taboo in comics in those days).  In three days, she carries the baby full term and gives birth in Avengers # 200.

(Avengers # 200, by the way, lists four writers: David Michelinie as the main writer, and Shooter, George Pérez, Bob Layton, and Michelinie as co-plotters.  Art is by Pérez and Dan Green.  If you’re going to create a travesty, it’s a good idea to spread the blame around.)
The child grows at an accelerated rate and reveals himself to be Marcus Immortus, a resident of the dimension known as limbo.  Marcus says he kidnapped Ms. Marvel from our world, impregnated her with his own essence, and returned her to earth so he could be born on earth and leave limbo forever.

However, Marcus’s presence on earth disrupts “the local time stream,” causing dinosaurs and medieval knights to appear in the present day.  When it becomes clear that Marcus cannot remain on earth, he tearfully agrees to return to limbo, alone.  But wait!  Ms. Marvel says.

Dim feelings from their brief “relationship” in limbo and the fact that she’s given birth to him have caused her to “feel closer” to Marcus than anyone in a long time.  Deciding this is “a relationship worth pursuing,” she abandons her life on earth and returns to limbo with him. 

Though puzzled by her decision, the Avengers go along with it.  Thor even provides the “happy couple” transportation back to limbo.

The article linked to above analyzes the problems with this story. 

But what can you as a writer take from it?  Five things . . .

1. Examine your own assumptions.  The writers of Avengers # 200 apparently did not do this.  They treat Ms. Marvel as a stereotypical female comics character of those days:  She makes a life-changing decision based on feelings of the moment and a need to "feel close" to someone.  She leaves behind her career and her friends to be with her man  –  a man who kidnapped and impregnated her without her knowledge. 

Did the writers intend to write a story that justifies rape?  Probably not.  More likely, they didn’t examine their own assumptions regarding women. 

Most writers find it difficult to write characters who are not like them – whether the character is of a different sex, race, religion, or whatever.   This can result in stereotypical, flat, and demeaning characters.

This difficulty is perfectly normal and human.  That’s why writers do research.

2. Look beyond the surface of your story.  In the sequel, Carol sharply criticizes the Avengers for taking everything Marcus said at face value.  Unfortunately, many writers do the same with their own stories.  They finish the first draft and think it’s brilliant.

Drill deeper.  Write multiple drafts.  You may be surprised what you uncover.

3. Heroes (and writers) have feet of clay.  This point seems less shocking today than it did 30 years ago.  The media is all over our political leaders and celebrities every time they screw up.  In some ways, we’ve gone to the opposite extreme by seeing heroes as imperfect specimens whose flaws are just waiting to be exposed.

Even so, it’s worth noting that The Scarlet Witch comes to realize that she not only failed her friend, but that she is capable of such a failure.

All writers are capable of writing a “travesty”.  Don’t delude yourself into thinking otherwise.

4. Own up to your mistakes.  The Avengers walk away in the sequel with egg on their faces.  It’s not a very heroic depiction, but it is necessary for them to face “harsh truths” about themselves so they can “emerge stronger” the next time a challenge presents itself.

Likewise, facing up to your own weaknesses may be the hardest thing you'll ever do.  But it's necessary if you want to grow as a writer.

5. Life is not fair, and our actions have consequences for others.  The sequel, written by Chris Claremont, brilliantly depicts this, as the former Ms. Marvel confronts the Avengers over how their actions have led to her present circumstances.  Yet despite losing everything  –  including her powers and memories  –  Carol Danvers is determined to carry on.

As writers, we may think our stories are meant merely to entertain the reader.  But stories have much deeper effects on readers – particularly young readers.   A wonderful essay entitled “Lucy, You Have Some ‘Splainin’ To Do” by Nicole Benbow examines the depictions of working women in the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy and how they – unintentionally, perhaps – reinforce the notion that women are not cut out to hold jobs.

Your stories convey messages to readers whether you intend them to or not.

You cannot control what messages the reader takes away from your story.  But you can control what messages you send.

Work Cited:
Benbow, Nicole.  “Lucy, You Have Some ‘Splainin’ to Do.”  The Writer’s Way by Jack Rawlins and  
     Stephen Metzger, 7th ed.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009. 336-41. Print.

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