Saturday, May 26, 2012

Memorial Day: A Writer's Reflection

Image via Microsoft Office
Memorial Day always stirs mixed feelings in me.  It is a day set aside to honor the men and women who've fought for our country. It is good and right that we do so.

But the patriotic fervor of Memorial Day often seems myopic. In all the flag-waving, saluting, parades, and barbecues, we lose sight of the fact that not all wars are necessary.

We forget that wars are started not by soldiers but by politicians who do not go to war themselves (though, to be fair, many have).

We forget that politicians sell wars to us, often bending truth, distorting facts, and rallying emotions.

So, Memorial Day often feels like it's built around both truth and lies.

On Monday, while we take a day to honor those in the service, let's also take a moment to reflect on each war they've fought and ask ourselves, what were the causes of that war?  What good came from fighting?  Was the war truly necessary?  And let's remind ourselves of the horrible cost of any war.

Asking such questions does not dishonor soldiers. Rather, it calls attention to that which we all want: to know that, when we go war (and, yes, sometimes we must), it's for a cause we believe in. That the sacrifices we are asking them to make are, indeed, for the greater good and not for vague political slogans such as "making the world safe for democracy."

And let’s remember that true freedom comes not from waging war but from conquering our own fears.
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Saturday, May 19, 2012

6 Tips from The Help on Using Multiple Points of View

Cover of "The Help"
Cover of The Help

Point of view: one of the most useful tools at the writer’s disposal, but also one of the most challenging.

Point of view—or POV—refers to the device of telling a story through a particular character’s eyes: getting inside his head and relating everything he sees, hears, feels, and experiences. Conversely, anything the character does not experience first hand should not be in the story, unless he hears or reads about it from another source.

POV can be challenging to master because our stories often contain information or events no single character experiences or is privy to. That’s why it’s alluring for writers to use multiple POVs, shifting the narration back and forth between different characters.

However, multiple POVs contain special challenges. They can jar readers and make your story difficult to manage.

So before you shift your narration from Molly to Jim to Don to Molly’s dog Pepper, take some tips from Kathryn Stockett’s excellent novel The Help to determine, first, if POV shifts are really necessary, and, second, how to go about managing them.

Whose Head are We In—and Why?

The Help is narrated by three women living in Mississippi in 1962—two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, and a white woman, Skeeter, who aspires to be a journalist. Their very different lives intertwine and come face-to-face with the injustice of segregation. But why was it necessary to tell the story from three different characters’ POVs?

Early in the novel, Aibileen’s employer, Elizabeth, builds her a toilet—an expensive and demeaning reminder that Aibileen is not considered worthy of using a white person’s toilet. Aibileen risks losing her job if she expresses how she feels, so she can only relate her feelings to her friend, Minny, a brash, outspoken woman who has her own employment issues. Meanwhile, Skeeter has just returned from college to find the black maid who raised her has mysteriously been fired by Skeeter’s clueless mother. 

Stockett’s evident purpose is to shed light on the unfairness of segregation and how it demeans both blacks and whites. She could probably have accomplished this by using a single character’s POV, but the shifting viewpoints add richness to the story. They enable us to experience segregation first hand through both black and white perspectives.

Likewise, Minny’s experiences are similar to Aibileen’s, but her personality and ways of coping with matters are entirely different. Thus, we get a fuller sense of the world in which these women live. Minny's working relationship with Celia, for example, adds a lot of humor that is missing from Aibileen's bitter and distant relationship with her boss.

To determine if your story warrants multiple POVs, ask yourself what they would contribute to the story. If you can't think of a single, specific advantage to using multiple POVs, don't.

6 Tips for Managing POV Shifts

If you’ve decided your story warrants multiple POVs, you can take another tip from The Help—or, rather, six more tips on keeping things straight and moving the story forward:

1. Limit your number of POV characters.  The Help introduces us to several other vivid characters—Skeeter’s friends, social climber Elizabeth and overt racist Hilly; Skeeter’s nagging mother; Minny’s bizarrely unhappy boss, Celia—but the narration is confined to Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter.

Limiting the number of POV characters keeps the story manageable, and also gives the reader a somewhat predictable structure. We know we’re going to get to each of the three characters eventually, and we’re not thrown for a loop, as we would be if another character’s POV were inserted. Rather, we get used to these characters as if they were old friends, taking turns chatting with us over lunch.

2. Introduce all of your POV characters early on. Although the first two chapters of The Help are told from Aibileen’s POV, Skeeter and Minny are both present. Skeeter attends lunch at Elizabeth’s house and is served by Aibileen, who then rides the bus home with Minny. We get to know the other two characters through Aibileen’s eyes before we jump into their heads. When a POV shift occurs, it’s like being dropped off at a friend’s house for awhile.

3. Shift POVs at chapter breaks. Writers sometimes make the mistake of shifting POVs in the middle of chapters or, worse, in the middle of scenes. But that’s like riding on a toy train that suddenly turns into a roller coaster: it can throw the reader right out of the story.

Chapter breaks, on the other hand, are ideal spots for POV shifts. The reader is aware that this part of the journey is over and a new part of the journey is about to begin.

4. Avoid predictable POV shifts. Another mistake writers make is thinking they have to always follow the same pattern in POV shifts. Thus, Character A narrates Chapter 1, Character B narrates Chapter 2, Character C narrates Chapter 3, and we’re back to Character A for Chapter 4. Booooring!

Stockett does something more organic. She tells the first two chapters through Aibileen’s eyes, Chapters 3 and 4 through Minny’s, and Chapters 5 and 6 through Skeeter’s. Then she shifts back to Aibileen for Chapter 7, then to Skeeter for Chapter’s 8 and 9. Minny does not return as a POV character until Chapter 10.

Nor are the chapters of the same length. Stockett often spends more time with one character than another, keeping the story fresh and unpredictable.

5. Use cliffhangers. Another advantage to using multiple POVs is that you can leave a character hanging for awhile. One chapter of The Help ends with Minny hiding on the toilet of a white woman—a definite no-no in the segregated South. Will she get caught? What then?

Stockett keeps us in suspense for a long time as she shifts back to the other two characters, and when she finally reveals Minny’s fate, we feel both relief and a sense of injustice that she had to hide at all.

6. Show the same events through different characters’ eyes.  Probably the most important advantage of POV shifts is what’s known as the Rashomon effect—showing the same event through the subjective perceptions of different characters.

When Aibileen arrives home in the poor, "colored" section of town to find a Cadillac parked in front of her house and a white woman (Skeeter) sitting on her stoop out in the open, wanting to talk to her, her reaction is very different than the naïve Skeeter expects.

Getting to see this encounter through both of their eyes provides us with a revealing glimpse into the cultural expectations imposed by segregation without portraying either character in a bad light. Instead, we sympathize with them and understand that both are victims of a racist system.

POV shifts can be fun and add depth to your story. But the key to using them is 1) make sure your story warrants being told from multiple viewpoints, and 2) manage POV shifts in such a way that they move the story forward and keep readers enthralled.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Order Changeth . . . Again and Again: What The Avengers Can Teach Writers about Shaking Things Up

Avengers # 1   © and ™ Marvel.
While I’m waiting for a chance to see Marvel’s The Avengers, let's take a look back at what made the latest super-team to become a film franchise so popular to begin with.

It wasn't heroes such as Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America. 

It wasn't the villains.  

It wasn’t even the writing or art, both of which vary widely from era to era. 

It was the personnel changes.

The Avengers stood apart from other super-teams in that its membership changed—and changed often.  These days, almost every super-team undergoes radical changes, but the Avengers did it first.

The early issues of The Avengers, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby (and later Don Heck), demonstrated how you can shake things up to keep your own stories interesting.

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes . . . and Then Some

The Avengers debuted in the first issue of their self-titled series, cover dated September 1963. To put this in context, very few super-hero teams preceded them: the Justice Society of America (which debuted in 1940), the short-lived All-Winners Squad (1946), the Legion of Super-Heroes (1958), the Justice League of America (1960), the Fantastic Four (1961), and the Doom Patrol (June 1963). The now mega-popular X-Men debuted the same month as the Avengers.

Most of these teams were built around a core cast of characters. The Avengers' fellow Marvel Universe team, the Fantastic Four, for example, always returned to its core cast of Reed, Ben, Sue, and Johnny.  Even when Crystal, Medusa, and others joined in later years, they were temporary stand-ins.  

Over at rival DC Comics, the JLA and the LSH accumulated members, becoming small organizations. This posed enormous challenges for writers, few of whom wanted to squeeze 14 to 25 heroes into stories on a regular basis.

The JSA, during its initial run from 1940-51, lost a few members here and there, but it revolved around a core team that included the Golden Age Hawkman and Atom. After the JSA's revival in the '60s, it, too, accumulated members. 

The Doom Patrol, like the FF, consisted of the same four characters, and the X-Men, throughout the '60s, featured the same five.

Lee and subsequent Avengers writers, on the other hand, regularly dropped members from the roster—and sometimes almost the entire team.

Marvel’s JLA?

The Avengers initially consisted of Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk, Ant-Man and The Wasp. Borrowing an idea from the rival company's JLA, this lineup boasted all of Marvel's heroes at the time who starred in their own series and were not otherwise engaged in a team, except for Spider-Man.  (Lee apparently wanted to preserve Spidey's loner status.)

Marvel, then a small company, published only a few titles in those days, most of which were anthology series held over from the '50s. Thus Thor starred in Journey into Mystery (which was eventually re-titled The Mighty Thor), Iron Man appeared in Tales of Suspense, and Ant-Man and The Wasp co-starred in Tales to Astonish.  After a six-issue series of his own had failed, The Hulk became the second feature in TtA.

It was quite an eclectic team by early '60s standards, and it didn't last.

Changes started happening as early as the second issue.

Over in TtA, Ant-Man changed his powers and his name, and so, midway through Avengers # 2, he appears as Giant-Man. Then, following the team's battle with the Space Phantom (who had disguised himself as the Hulk), the Hulk became the first Avenger to quit, after realizing the others would never trust him.

I can't be sure why Lee instituted two changes in the same issue, so early in the book's run. After all, this risky move was bound to unsettle new readers.  Storywise, however, the second change made sense.  The Hulk, an unpredictable, rage-filled monster, was hardly team material. And, though no longer a member, he continued to appear for the next few issues: In # 3, he teamed up with Marvel's other celebrated anti-hero, The Sub-Mariner, to fight the remaining Avengers.

As for Ant-Man, I suspect this character lagged behind the others in terms of popularity or fan appeal. Even the change to Giant-Man did little to improve his standing: Within two years, he and The Wasp would lose their own series in TtA (replaced by The Sub-Mariner).  

In any event, Giant-Man provided the team with more muscle—they still had Thor and Iron Man in that department—so they needed something different, something . . . patriotic.

Enter: Captain America

Cap, the stalwart WWII hero, joined in Avengers # 4. He brought acrobatic ability, a shield, and an iconic sense of what a hero should be.

Later writers played up Cap's leadership qualities: his ability to lead heroes much more powerful than he is, the reverence other Avengers hold for him, and his sense of duty which inspires the best in those around him. These qualities are evident during Lee's tenure, as well, although Cap spends much of his time hanging out with teen sidekick Rick Jones, and not so much time interacting with his new teammates. Nevertheless, Cap (who joined Iron Man as co-feature of Tales of Suspense) proved overwhelmingly popular with fans and came to dominate the book.  

Still, something wasn't quite gelling. During the next dozen issues, the Avengers fought the likes of Kang, the Mole Man, and Count Nefaria—hardly awe-inspiring or earth-shaking villains.  Lee and artist Jack Kirby seemed to be saving their best ideas for their other books.  And then Lee decided to shake things up by getting rid of almost the entire team.

Leaner, Meaner, and More Quarrelsome

It was a bold move. It had never been done in a super-hero team comic before. But in Avengers # 16, Lee retired all of the original Avengers, leaving only Captain America. 

Who should replace Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man and the Wasp?  Three much less powerful characters—Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch.  All three had previously been villains.

This sort of thing usually happens when a book is on the verge of cancellation. I’m not privy to Marvel’s sales figures of that time, but it must be noted that the company itself was still small and struggling. The iconic characters we take for granted today were still in their formative stages, and Marvel as a comics publisher enjoyed little more than cult status. The company was a distant and non-threatening competitor in an industry dominated by DC Comics (then National Comics). 

When a company has little to lose, experimentation is welcome. 

And, in the Avengers’ case, the experiment paid off. Although I prefer having Thor and Iron Man on the team, the stories following their departure remain some of my favorites. Lee played off the personalities of his new Avengers, having them bicker and go through personal angst. Hawkeye and Quicksilver challenged Cap for leadership. Cap doubted his place as a hero in the modern world. And everybody fell in love with the token female, The Scarlet Witch—including The Swordsman, a villain who infiltrated the team in # 20.

Furthermore, the Avengers faced real challenges when they fought the likes of Power Man, Kang (again) and Attuma. They had to struggle to win.

Gathering No Moss

By keeping the team small and not being afraid to jettison fan favorites, Lee set the tone for a series which has endured almost 50 years and is now the subject of a blockbuster film. While the Avengers' lineup has almost always included some combination of core characters—Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, The Wasp, The Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye—the team was built on change, and change remains an important part of its appeal.  

If you find yourself stuck in your story, take a cue from The Avengers and shake things up.

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Friday, May 4, 2012

Super-Powers Galore: Power Club Book Reading May 5 & 6, 2012

Photo: Google Maps. (Can't you tell by the little yellow guy?)

This post is a day early because it contains a special announcement.  See below.

If you happen to be in downtown Kansas City, MO, this weekend, stop by the “Gotham Arts Project” Crossroads Art District, 2100 Grand.  As part of the monthly “First Friday” event in Kansas City, the Gotham Arts Project is hosting an three-day “extravaganza” of “Art, Photography, Book signings, Jewelry, Sculpture, Entertainment , and more,” according to their flyer. 

One of the participants will be yours truly.

I’ll be present most of the weekend along with other members of my writing cohorts, the fabled Monday Night Writers Group.  We will be selling copies of the books we’ve published, including my comic book, Gold Dust.

I’ll also be reading from my novel-in-progress, The Power Club™ at 2 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday.

Why am I reading from a book that hasn’t been published yet?  The same three reasons you should do public readings from your own works-in-progress:

Experience.  The more experience you have reading your work in public, the better you’ll get.  When your book is finally published, you'll be rarin' to go!

Building an audience.  Reading in public attracts potential readers to your work.  Ideally, they will fall in love with your characters, your writing style, or even you (but not in a stalker kind of way), and they will look forward to your book when it’s published.   

Even if the audience is only mildly interested, the title of your book or your name may jog their memory later, prompting them to give your work a second look.

Network, network, network.  Writers learn from other writers.  We learn by watching them do readings.  We learn by interacting with them.  We learn from just being around places where writing is celebrated. 

But won’t readers be disappointed if they like your book and can’t buy it yet? 

That’s why you have a blog.  (You do have a blog, right?)  That's why you do social media networking such as Facebook and Twitter.  So you can keep potential readers informed with updates and maybe even entice them further with free chapters of your work-in-progress.

So drop by 2100 Grand this weekend and see what writers do when they’re not, well, writing.

The Gotham Arts Project's schedule:
May 4, 6-9:30 p.m.: First Friday activities
May 5, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.: Children's reading (2 p.m.), music, dance, authors' readings
May 6, 12 noon-4 p.m.: Children's reading (2 p.m.), music, dance, authors' readings. [Update: The Sunday readings have been cancelled.]

A percentage of sales will be donated to Kansas City Hospice.

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