Saturday, March 31, 2012

Playing the Game: How The Hunger Games Combines Adventure and Social Commentary

The Hunger Games (film)The Hunger Games (film)
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jumping through hoops. Scratching someone else’s back. Tit for tat. Playing the game.

These are all terms young people face at some point in their lives if they want to succeed in the so-called adult world.  It’s not what you know—it’s who you know. It doesn’t matter how wonderful, talented, unique, and bright you are—you have to get people to like you.

And there is a lot of truth to these sayings. The world is run by imperfect human beings, many of whom got where they are by playing similar games. Yet most of us hope we can succeed on some level by being who we are, not by being forced to become something we’re not.

Enter The Hunger Games with its horrifying version of “playing the game” and what young people must do not only to succeed but to survive: kill each other.

In case you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last few weeks, The Hunger Games is the latest film franchise (based on a trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins, who also co-wrote the screenplay) to be touted as the heir apparent of Harry Potter. (Succeeding a popular film franchise is, itself, a game, which makes The Hunger Games almost a parody of itself.) Like HP, HG is set in fantastic world in which young people must fight against overwhelming odds to survive and make a positive difference in the world.

But the differences between Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are more striking than the similarities. HG features a female protagonist (Katniss Everdeen). Instead of using a magic wand, she uses a bow and arrows. Instead of being helped along her journey by supportive friends such as Hermione and Ron, Katniss faces 23 youthful competitors whom she must kill or who will kill her. Instead of being guided by caring, powerful adults such as Dumbledore, she’s on her own, her every move observed by voyeuristic, decadent adults who get their jollies by watching kids kill kids.

Harry Potter, meet reality TV.

Of course, there’s much more to The Hunger Games than superficial comparisons to another successful film franchise. Indeed, the dark premise of The Hunger Games seeks to offer social commentary couched in the trappings of a Young Adult adventure story. It succeeds more often than not, and, for writers, it gives us a vivid demonstration of how to play our own game.

Just Another Adventure Story?

The Hunger Games is set in a future America called Panem, ruled by an effete, spoiled and insanely rich upper class. The Have Nots of this world live in 12 impoverished districts. Each district must satisfy the rich overlords’ annual lust for entertainment by offering up a male and female “tribute” between the ages fo 12 and 18 to participate in the Hunger Games, a violent Romanesque blood sport.   

Sixteen-year-old Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, Primrose. Fortunately for Katniss, she has spent her young life sneaking into the forest outside her district and learning to hunt. She can use a bow and arrow (quite expertly, in fact, as she demonstrates to a group of would-be sponsors by shooting an apple out of the gamemaster’s hand). She can climb trees and track animals. These skills put the odds of surviving decidedly in her favor.

And it’s a good thing, too. Katniss finds herself facing not only 23 kids who must kill her but also a forest fire, mosquitoes whose bites cause hallucinations, and ravenous beasts conjured at the gamemaster’s whim. In short, The Hunger Games combines breakneck action and imaginative scenarios which are bound to lure viewers into theaters (and readers into books). 

(Bowing to the sensibilities of its audience (and perhaps to secure a PG-13 rating), the film glides over the violence aimed at children.  Most deaths are shown in quick cuts without blood and gore. Still, it is perfectly clear what is happening, which makes the deaths all the more disturbing.)

Mirror, Mirror . . . on the TV Screen

One of the films previewed before the start of The Hunger Games was Snow White and the Huntsman, a lavish retelling of the familiar Disney classic. Snow White uses a literal mirror as a character who tells the evil queen she’s “the fairest in the land” but forces her to face an unpleasant truth: her beauty will one day be surpassed by that of Snow White.

The mirror used in The Hunger Games is metaphorical but no less “in your face”. Every time the film shows the Capitol and it’s heavily mascaraed citizens clamoring for tributes, I couldn’t help thinking of our present-day immersion in celebrities and the growing divide between the super-rich and rest of us (the 1 percent/99 percent mantra). Corporations and oil companies rule the day, and presidential races appear to be nothing more than contests for rich people who don’t know (or care) what’s it’s like to work hard and still fall behind.

Whether The Hunger Games says anything meaningful about the current state of affairs is debatable. What it does is escalate these twin phenomena of celebrity immersion and income disparity to ridiculous extremes. But are they so ridiculous? In the age of Charlie Sheen, it’s hard to say yes. While people have sat glued to their screens, awaiting the latest mishaps of celebrities du jour, young people have spent the last ten years dying in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sure, we have “reasons” to justify slaughter, but so do the residents of Panem.

It’s to The Hunger Games’ credit that it doesn’t offer easy solutions (or any solutions, really—this is only the first film in the series). An uprising—evoking the Occupy movements—is shown briefly, but, in the end, Katniss learns to play the game as much as she learns to bend the rules a little (or, rather, to persuade those in charge to bend the rules for her benefit). Likewise, she does not come away with a new mission in life (as one might expect for the hero of an adventure story), but rather with a sense of “What do we do now?”

So it is in life.

This question does not have to be answered in a two-hour movie (nor even in a novel). Having the courage to ask the question is what elevates The Hunger Games and makes us—even writers—more fullly aware of the games we are all playing. 

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Blast From the Past: Top 10 Tips for Writers

Writer WordartWriter Wordart (Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

Time flies when you’re having fun (or not, sometimes). This post marks the first-year anniversary of this blog, and I can truly say it’s been fun (as well as occasionally brain-wrenching to come up with topics for posts every week). It’s been an amazing learning experience.

A deep thanks to everyone who’s dropped by. If you read the blog regularly or occasionally, or if you’ve just dropped in to see what this is all about, I appreciate it. A special thanks to those who have left comments, re-tweeted and re-Facebooked my posts, and referred this site to others. Your valuable input has helped keep this site going.

But this blog isn’t about me. It’s about you and this thing we share called writing.

Blogs of this type are meant primarily to promote the writer’s work, to create a buzz for forthcoming projects, and, sometimes, to sell the writer’s work. This blog aims to do all of these things (including now allowing you can purchase my comic book Gold Dust). But it also aims to do more: to explore this preoccupation we call writing, to share writing advice, and to analyze good and bad writing—particularly as it pertain to the often maligned but nevertheless popular genre of super-heroes.

I hope to continue to explore these interests well into the future; in the meantime, let’s take a trip through some of The Semi-Great Gildersleeve's Greatest Hits. In no particular order, here are my Top Ten Writing Tips: 

1. Write a Sloppy First Draft. This comes straight from Anne Lamott, author of the influential Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Don’t be afraid to let your first efforts suck — they should suck. Get your story down on paper, and then make it better through revision.

2. Face Your Writing Fears. My very first post was about this subject. Fears related to writing can come in any disguise: Writing something stupid. Exposing your work to others. Submitting your work to an agent or publisher. Taking on the responsibility of self-publishing. 

Fears never truly go away. They simply move from one target to another. The minute you conquer one writing fear, another pops up to demand all your reserves of courage.  But hang in there. Keep your goal(s) in mind.

3. Trust the Writing Process. Another early post was about letting go of your need to control every aspect of the story. Let it go where it needs to go. Who knows? It may take you on a better journey than the one you planned.

4. Narrow Your Audience. A constant problem for novice writers is the desire to write for “everybody” or to put as little thought as possible into who’s actually going to read your book. But no book (not even Harry Potter) appeals to everyone. If by chance your novel reaches a wide audience, consider yourself blessed. Knowing your primary audience will help you focus your story and reach the readers who are most likely to appreciate your work.

5. Critique Groups are PricelessNot all critique groups work out, of course. But if you find a small group of people who are willing to read your work and give you honest, constructive feedback, hold on to them. They are your bridge between what’s inside your head and your eventual audience. 

6. Difficult Readers are Inevitable. Some readers just don’t get your work, or they have agendas of their own which they want to foist upon your book. Accept it. Deal with it. Move on.

7. Write about Your Passion. Some of the most successful posts in terms of pageviews have been those related to comic books, such as this one and this one. Funny thing is, I don’t currently read comics. They’re too expensive, and I’m frustrated by the never-ending, decompressed storytelling and reboots that have been in vogue for the last several years. But that hasn’t stopped me from writing about old comics and, to my surprise, discovering that others like to read these posts.

I also explore the world of super-heroes through novels, including writing one of my own.

8. Don’t Strive to be Too OriginalNobody wants to publish or read something that’s “unlike anything that’s ever been published,” even though, as writers, we yearn to write such a thing. Familiarity has a vital place in fiction.

9. Don’t Let Writer’s Block Stop Your Story. Two separate articles—here and here—give tips on how to ovecome writer’s block.

10. Don’t Wait for Inspiration.  Inspiration is fickle. Your real story comes from deep within you, not from the sprinkling of some magical idea that happens to land upon your head.

Thanks again, one and all, for helping to make this blog a success!  The best is yet to come.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why Spell Check is Not Your Friend

English: Scanning electron microscope image of...Image via Wikipedia

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matterit's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.– Mark Twain

Ah, computers!  What wonderful tools for writers.  You type in your words and, if you make a mistake, your spell check corrects it for you.

But not so fast.  Spell checks are great for speed and efficiency, but they can also make us lazy.  Worse, they make writers ignorant of the skills we need to become better writers.  If you rely too much on a spell check, you can use the "almost right word" and not even know it.

Take these examples from recent student papers in my college composition course:               
If you are one of the few people who has savior acne problems . . .
Everyone may need some correction to becoming better at his or her weak arrears. 
Another stereotype that needs addressing is alcohol. Yes. There are tones of it. 
He believes rabbis will be the cause of the walking dead.
To be fair, the last one came from an in-class, handwritten exercise, not a computer-processed, spell-checked essay.  Even so, it reminds us why we should know the difference between the right word and the "almost right word."

I’m pretty sure the student meant “rabies” instead of rabbis.  As for the others, a close reading of the text makes it clear what word each student meant to use (severe for savior, areas for arrears, and tons for tones).
What went wrong?   Each student probably typed in what seemed to be the right word, and, when no red squiggly lines popped up to underline the error, he or she moved on.  (The words, after all, are spelled correctly.)   Or perhaps the computer tried to assist the student by offering suggestions after the first few letters were typed – suggestions that happened to be wrong.

Okay, so students make mistakes.  Big deal, right?  Why not just laugh about it and move on?

Because laziness and ignorance do not end at a few poor word choices.  They can cause major problems for writers who get into the habit of being lazy.  In The Writer’s Way, authors Jack Rawlins and Stephen Metzger describe a student paper that was supposed to be about jazz legend Duke Ellington.  As one of the authors puts it, 

[the student] simply did a global ‘search and fix’ before he submitted the paper to me.  Because his computer didn’t recognize ‘Ellington,’ he ended up with a paper about ‘Duke Wellington.’  I handed it back without reading past the first paragraph.

Now, imagine you’re not a student writing a paper for a composition instructor.  Imagine you’re a writer who wants to sell your story to an agent or publisher.  How would you feel if the manuscript you’ve worked hard and long on comes back to you with a rejection note (if you’re lucky) to watch out for similar errors?  What are the odds of that agent or publisher taking seriously anything you send them in the future?

Spell checks do have advantages.  They can help us with blind spots (for example, I often have to stop and remind myself whether "referred" has one or two "r's" at the end) and teach us how to spell unfamiliar words.

But relying too much on spell checks can bring disaster.  Their is know substitute four having god spilling skills yore shelf.

Work Cited:
Rawlins, Jack, and Stephen Metzger.  The Writer’s Way.  7th ed.  Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2009.  Page 194.

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Finding New Inspiration in Old Stories: Daredevil # 120-123

All images and characters  and © Marvel.
All rights reserved.
Every once in awhile, I like to revisit stories which inspired me to become a writer.  Do those stories still hold up?  What fresh insights can I glean from the choices those writers made?

This week’s offering: Daredevil # 120-123, April-July 1975, written by Tony Isabella and drawn by Bob Brown (who are both credited as “storytellers”) with inks by Vince Colletta.

I was never a huge fan of Daredevil.  Basically, he’s a costumed acrobat with the gimmick of being blind and having to rely on a “radar sense” to get around.  He also swings from rooftop to rooftop on a cable connected to a billy club, which makes him part Spider-Man and part Batman.

Nevertheless, my first exposure to Daredevil turned me into an unlikely follower of the series.  These four issues showed how good writing can win over fans with an exciting story, a multi-layered plot, interesting villains, and a sense of heroes belonging to a larger community.

“. . . and a HYDRA New Year!”

The premise of this arc, as indicated by the title of # 120, is as follows: Matt Murdock (Daredevil) and his lady love, Natasha Romanoff (the Black Widow) attend a New Year's Eve party which is interrupted by the forces of HYDRA, a green-clad army bent on taking over the world.  HYDRA wants to kidnap Matt’s best friend, New York District Attorney Franklin “Foggy” Nelson.

DD and the Widow intervene (reluctantly on her part, since Foggy previously gave her good reason to hate him – something to do with a trumped-up murder charge), and then Nick Fury and his agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a paramilitary spy organization and long-time enemies of HYDRA, show up to reveal why the bad guys wanted to kidnap Foggy: to prevent Fury from offering the portly D.A. a job on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s advisory board.

Of course, I didn’t fully understand or care what all this was about at the time.  What drew me into buying these issues was something far simpler: the villains.

Villains, Villains, and More Villains

Every hero needs good villains, and heroes with colorful rogues galleries – such as Spider-Man, Batman, and the Flash – benefit from recurring enemies who become almost as popular as the heroes themselves.

HYDRA at this point employed several super-villains as “division chiefs” – El Jaguar, Dreadnought (or Dreadnaught – it’s spelled both ways), Blackwing, Mankiller, Jackhammer, and others – a cornucopia of villains in one story line!  How could I resist?

Unfortunately, these villains never became a Daredevil rogues gallery – few returned to fight DD again – but the promise was there.  How can you not like Sal Buscema's cover for # 123, which shows the villains ganging up on our heroes?  We’ve just got to find out what happens.

But, after luring me into buying Daredevil with enticing villains, Isabella and Brown went further.  They made me care about DD and his circle of friends and associates.

Love on the Rocks

The Black Widow, then series co-star (her picture appears on the title banner, along with DD), provides much of the depth and drama of this arc.  I was too young to pick up on the nuances of their relationship, but it was clear things were not working out.  DD was constantly saying the wrong things – he had trouble accepting Natasha as a full and equal partner in their super-hero adventures. 

For her part, Natasha was used to being a strong and independent woman at a time when women’s lib was still a relatively new concept.  She was Mary Tyler Moore in blue spandex.  She felt she was losing part of herself by becoming DD's “sidekick”.

Yet Isabella affords us scenes in which the two lovers flirt, play around, and simply talk about their relationship.  We get a sense that they do love each other.  When DD realizes he cannot change to accommodate her, it’s heartbreaking.

Matt and Natasha struggling to work things out -- from # 121.

Not So Foggy After All

If any character qualifies as Daredevil’s sidekick, it’s Foggy Nelson.  He doesn’t know his best friend’s a super-hero, and he’s lovable, silly, and overweight – all the stereotypes of a sidekick.

Yet it’s Foggy who truly shines as a hero in this story.  He tries to make amends for the earlier animosity between himself and the Widow, and, when her life is threatened, he surrenders to HYDRA to prevent her from being killed.  Later, it’s Foggy who snatches a machine gun out of a HYDRA thug’s hands and uses it to blast away the chains binding DD and the Widow.  (Good thing Foggy’s a crack shot, but never mind . . .)
Foggy to the rescue -- also from # 121.

And Foggy has the good sense to turn Fury’s offer down.  After surveying the damage done by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s battle with HYDRA to Shea Stadium, Foggy decides that overseeing a super-spy organization isn't for him.

Nick, Ivan, and Spidey

This arc also makes good use of supporting characters who connect Daredevil to the larger community in the Marvel Universe.  Nick Fury and his own sidekicks (Dum Dum Dugan and the Contessa Valentina Allegro de Fontaine) play significant roles, as does the Black Widow’s chauffeur and bodyguard, Ivan.  These characters bounce off each other, providing humor and interpersonal drama, as well as helping to advance the plot.

Though he does not appear, Spider-Man is referenced a couple of times.  When Daredevil senses El Jaguar climbing up a building, he at first thinks the newcomer is Spidey.  And HYDRA's mysterious new leader turns out to be an old Spidey villain, Silvermane.

In later eras, too many crossovers and references to past stories in other series could overwhelm comics stories, making them difficult for new readers to follow.  This story gets the balance just right.

And What of DD Himself?

If subsequent issues of Daredevil proved underwhelming, it’s because Isabella and Brown did such an outstanding job here.  This arc provides the turning point in DD and the Widow’s relationship – she would leave him and the series just one issue later, in # 124.  Daredevil on his own – as a self-pitying, self-accusing hero – was never as interesting as when he played off her.

But make no mistake: Daredevil stands out as the main character here.  We care about him, both as he places himself in danger to stop HYDRA and as he tries to work out things with Natasha.  The story turns on his decisions, and his choices ultimately bring about the resolution.

And though the story ends the way most super-hero stories do – the heroes win and most of the villains are captured – it leaves us with a sense that something more has happened.  Momentous decisions have been made, and the lives of our protagonists – Matt and Natasha – will never be the same.

What about you?  What stories do you now look at in a new light?

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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Why Writing Roadblocks Are Good for Your Story

road_block.jpgImage via Wikipedia

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Writing is a lot like embarking on a journey with an incomplete road map.  You think you know where you’re going, but the map doesn’t show the unexpected detours, the places where the road suddenly ends, and the new highway under construction.

Also, you entrust your car (the story) to a driver (your main character), who has a mind of his own, is often distracted by shiny objects on the side of the road, and wants to stop occasionally to take care of bodily functions (sleeping, eating, going to the restroom).

You, the writer, want to keep moving forward in a predetermined direction, but the incomplete map and willful driver get in the way, creating writing roadblocks that threaten to derail your story.

It’s enough to make a writer give up on the journey and start over (e.g., rewrite the story from the beginning or abandon the story in favor of a new one) or even stay home (give up on writing altogether).

But don’t be hasty.  A roadblock can be the best thing to happen to your story.

Writing roadblocks come in many forms.  Sometimes your character is faced with a decision, and you have no idea how she will decide.  Or another, unexpected character shows up, and you don’t know what to do with him.  Or the plot twist you thought was going to be brilliant turns out to be lame.  What do you do now?

Here are eight tips for working with your roadblock instead of fighting it:

1. Begin with your character. Your character must want something.  What is it?  How important is it that she gets what she wants?  You do not have to determine up front whether or not your character succeeds – the fact that she wants something gives your story purpose and direction.

2. Determine what’s at stake.  What will happen if your character does not get what she wants?  Will she lose her last chance at happiness?  Will the murderer get away?  Will the world come to an end?  Again, you do not have to know up front if your character will win.  You only have to know what will happen if she doesn’t.

3. Be prepared to accept the worst. Writers can hold themselves back if they fail to consider this.  And it is a hard thing to consider.  We like to think of our main characters as winners, and much of popular fiction teaches us that the hero always wins.  But doubt and uncertainty can paralyze us as writers if we don’t face every possible outcome.

So what if your character loses her last chance at happiness?  What if the murderer gets away?  What if the world comes to an end?  What then?  (And there is always a “What then?” even if the world ends.)

4. Determine the steps your character will take to reach her goal. Once again, you don’t know if she’s going to succeed; you only know what she’s going to do next.

5. Determine some of the obstacles in your character’s way.  If you’re like me, creating obstacles for your character is tough.  It’s like tripping your own child while he’s carrying a tray full of expensive china across the room.  My advice: Don’t stress too hard in dreaming up obstacles.  Your character will no doubt trip by himself at some point, which leads me to . . .

6. When an unexpected roadblock occurs, see it as an opportunity for growth – for both your character and yourself.  This is where you truly test your mettle as a writer, where both you and your character discover hidden strengths.  Just as adversity in the real world can bring out hidden talents, forgotten skills, and surprising character traits in people, so too can roadblocks reveal hidden aspects of your story, thereby keeping it fresh and exciting.

7. Keep forging ahead. Go around the roadblock.  Fly over it.  Dig under it.  Heck, it’s your story: drive straight through the roadblock if you wish.  Whatever you do, keep writing.

8. Don’t start over.  If you do, you deprive your character and yourself of a chance to grow.  Instead, muster the courage to keep going forward, wherever the story takes you, even if the outcome differs from what you originally wanted.

Writing is discovery, but not all discoveries are pleasant.  When a writing roadblock threatens to derail your story, seize it as an opportunity to trust in yourself and in your story.  After all, a roadblock may just make the entire journey worthwhile.

What do you think?  How do you deal with writing roadblocks?

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Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...