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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Okay, so I made that word up, from the Greek roots of the word “middle” and “place” because I really think there needs to be some sort of alternative to the unrealistic idea of utopia and the dour-as-all-get-out dystopia that’s all the rage.

I understand the popularity of dystopias because I enjoy many of them myself. The idea of looking at the world as it is and wondering how bad things could get, wondering if we’d land on the “right” side of things. Growing up my friends and I would play a similar game of what-if but through the lens of the past: if we were in Paris or Italy or Austria in the late 1930s, or even Germany, would we have done the right thing, would we have joined the Resistance? We’d like to think we’d know to do the right thing, and its these sudden shifts in the ideological ground that makes a dystopia fascinating.

But when you look up the word utopia, and then its antonym, you find that the opposite of a perfect world is hell. Dystopia is hell on earth. And all the hope in the world ladled into the ending of YA dystopias cannot hide the fact that hope is merely a band-aid on hell, a word of cheer meant to let the reader close their eyes and pretend it never happened, that it was all a bad dream, and that everything would get better from that moment onward.

Reality is never that clean. In fact, it’s rather messy.

You know what, I don’t particularly like this partisanship in fiction, I don’t like this idea of black or white with no middle ground. I love me some good dystopia but I’m feeling starved from a lack of a more positive visionary substance. I want to see something in between, the messitopia, a future with human complications but not at the brink of using its children for blood sport or shuttering us in a post-global warming nightmare or forcing us into protective domes that keep the ugliness of the outside world at bay. I would hope that there are writers out there with enough imagination who could deliver an action-packed tale of a future where we got somethings right but still had some kinks to work out.

Give us a future to hold onto, not one to fear.

 

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If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s one of those clichés that shows up in movies as an unimpeachable truth, a type of suffering artists grok and continue to believe is necessary in order to create great art. Ray Bradbury’s own advice to writers is to make a bucket list of fears and write about them as a way of conquering them, and in his own work those fears, guilt, and anxieties he possessed all manifested themselves in great stories; his fear of flying was the source of his writing about ships heading into deep space!

In the kidlit game, writers are encouraged to mine the depths of their childhood anguish in order to render a realistic world for their young readers. This is what allows a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old to capture the imaginations of those just barely into their double-digits. The advice to writers is to put the reader into the main character’s head, then keep putting the main character into increased danger, and at the very last minute pull them to safety — the requisite “hopeful” if not happy ending.

A bit sadistic when you think about it.

The danger in a culture, a media, an entertainment that continually relies on fear, pain, and anxiety as its inspiration is that it diminishes the value of other emotions and experiences. It trains individuals to respond more and more (and ultimately only) to fear to the extent that our political discourse is almost entirely based on our reaction to manufactured dangers. The worst part of all this fear-conditioning is that as a society we have also been trained to expect someone to come to the rescue at the last minute and save us.

If our ancestors had that same expectation during the Great Depression we might never have recovered as a nation.

In children’s literature, more so in middle grade that YA books, there is a fervent cry for realistic stories with hopeful endings. The idea is to give kids something they can relate to and then let them know they can rise above whatever crisis or turmoil is at stake. The problem is that the world around them, around all of us, isn’t interested in making the hopeful happen. We aren’t interested in the same gas or food rationing that was the result of the last Depression because it wouldn’t produce the “right” kind of fear; the fear of imaginary assault on our protected freedoms as opposed to the real fear that would cause us to rise up against the banking, corporate, and political entities that do well by courting our collective fear.

While I certainly agree that the traumas of our past make great fodder for the stories we tel,l I think writers owe it to kids to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and without the sugar-coating of a false hope tacked on. Perhaps this is what makes realistic fiction difficult for all but the best writers, and why fantasy gluts the shelves, because when you control the world you can control the outcomes better. But writing about the fears or growing up, the pains of adolescence, the anxieties of the world requires endings equally bold. If you want young readers to remember what they have just read you need to leave them hanging with all the suspense that the world has to offer. When it comes to endings writers might do well to remember:

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

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A Hippie and an Anarchist walk into a Starbucks and ask the Barista…

Can you picture it? Birkenstocks and tie-dye, piercings and tattoos, a bored look and a smart phone. Counter-culture meets coffee-counter culture. The attitude and the edge, the anger and the disaffection. The sheer conflict of images.

Writers think about stereotypes more than any other people I know. In an effort to communicate with words it becomes necessary to show a reader who, what, and where these people are, and these descriptions require a writer to consider how many strokes of the brush it will take to render the image.

Factually, a reporter has no reason to point out details that have no bearing on a story — we may be told a fire victim’s age but not their weight or race, because these details tell us nothing about the scene. In news reporting we aren’t given extraneous details partially because we can see details that aren’t described and partially because the story itself must be believed because it is simply true, it actually happened. So if we are told a famous and wealthy business tycoon was found dead in an alley behind a homeless shelter we believe it, and begin to fill in unspoken details and questions that allow us to create a narrative in our mind about what we thought happened.

We do this because we have deeply embedded stereotypes that inform our ability to construct an image that is true to us.

That tycoon in the alley, he doesn’t belong there, because that’s not where tycoons should be found. We picture him in a suit, crumpled near a dumpster, face down maybe, pockets turned out where he has been robbed, shoes missing. The location, behind a homeless shelter, sets us thinking who might have done this to him.

Him? When did I decide our tycoon was male? Is male my stereotype default for a tycoon? Are my assumptions based on stereotypes or the preponderance of examples? Does placing a tycoon dead in an alley behind a homeless shelter automatically trip the default that assumes foul play is involved? These images that we construct are a function of our individual experience, but I doubt that from the short description above that a reader would draw the same conclusion further details would provide.

Sally Hemmings, noted real estate tycoon, was found in the alley behind the homeless shelter she founded, dead from a ruptured appendix.

Details, in this case, help us not only see the scene more clearly but also counter any stereotypes we otherwise would have affixed to the story without them. In short, in the absence of the concrete, our thinking would tend toward the stereotype.

In fiction the writer treads delicately between being “true” and giving the reader a chance to properly visualize the characters and settings. News images from South Central LA during the Rodney King Riots would have us imagine a rundown neighborhood full of poverty and crime, and yet one of the wealthiest universities, USC, was mere blocks away to the north. This contradiction in expectations actually provides an opportunity for context and comparison, just as it can with character stereotypes. The problem, in fact and fiction, is that we rely on the stereotypes to become rather than inform the reality.

Far too often in fiction for middle grade and young adults I find that stereotypes, or behavior that has become stereotypical, is nothing more than a cynical way to either deliver on a reader’s expectations or a guarantee to fulfill a marketing category. A middle grade mystery, with a well-intentioned boy detective and a hiding-her-light-under-a-bushel girl sidekick, always reads flat to me. It trades on the stereotypes of a boy with grandiose ideas and the smart girl who helps the boy achieve those goals with a wink to the reader that the boy would be nowhere without her aid. One could argue this being the flip side to the helpless girl who requires a boy savior but neither is revolutionary. Is it possible to have the boy and girl be equal partners? And without an undertone of romance? And for them both to be true to their nature, a boyish boy and a girly girl?

No.

Because our expectations about the characters requires that they correspond to something we recognize in real life, or at the very least within our experiences. And beyond that, the characters themselves must have stereotypical expectations in order for there to be resonance. There is nothing more unrealistic in American fiction (with few exceptions) than a story with 100% caucasian characters, just as there is nothing realistic about a collection of mixed race characters where those differences aren’t noted by the characters themselves. Kids especially are keen on making these distinctions as they are still forming their own thoughts about what behaviors are of a particular character and which are stereotypical.

Every writer who doesn’t feel that writing for children and teens should include a political or social agenda is missing the truth: all writing includes the writer’s agenda. They either rely on and perpetrate stereotypes, for better or worse, or they fight stereotypes in an attempt to get readers to think beyond their own prejudices and expectations. Every detail about character and setting becomes a deliberate choice to either expose or support a stereotype.

What, exactly, is a stereotype is a question for another time.

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Actually, this is more of a question, a call to the universe if you will. What truly are the clichés that are specific to young adult fiction, and not those taken from other sources?

1. trite: stereotyped expression, sentence or phrase, usually expressing popular or common thought or idea that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse; sadder but wiser, strong as an ox

2. trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.

3. anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse.

I think there are many clichés that appear all over the literary landscape, that the use of color or a musical reference isn’t purely a young adult thing, but I’m hard pressed to come up with anything truly YA.

Rebellion against authority?

Bully Boys and Queen Bees?

The nerdy kid who saves the day/wins the prize/is accepted by the crowd?

I know that for middle grade novels I have grown weary of the boy-girl friendship where the girl is a sidekick who is smarter than the boy but lets him think he’s figured things out for himself. This is generally coupled with the equally annoying mystery story where some plucky kids manage to solve some mystery no adult could.

This whole idea has been rolling around in my head since I saw the interview with Maurice Sendak by Stephen Colbert where the faux conservative attempted to reduce the basic idea behind picture books to a simple formula:

Sendak: You know the formula
Colbert: You just need an animal… and something they’ve lost
Sendak: Well, yes, most books for children are very bad
Colbert: A squirrel lost their mittens.
Sendak: There you go.
Colbert: The buffalo lost its gun
Sendak: You’ve just written two children’s books

Kidding aside, is the lost-and-found story in picture books fits the “trite or commonplace through overuse” definition of cliché, yet it seems to elemental at the same time. So, with YA, in the end when the boy gets the girl (or girl gets the boy, or boy-boy, girl-girl, &c.) are we looking at a cliché? When our heroic main character saves the day or conquers their fear or achieves their goal, cliché?

Is writing for children simply a question of cliché management?

No, really, I’m asking. What sort of clichés do you see? What are the things a YA story can’t seem to be successful without these days? All comments and answers appreciated.

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I was talking to another writer a while back and he said something that’s been sticking in my craw ever since. We were talking about a recent writing project of mine and he started asking some questions, the type of questions where you can tell someone is dancing around what they really want to say. Finally I managed to get that he liked the premise of the story but that it lacked an exceptional main character.

“That’s why people read fiction, to feel like they are special and exceptional, like the main character.”

I bristled.

This notion that everyone is exceptional, I used to see this every day when I worked in retail. It’s a variant of this idea that everyone feels they are entitled to things simply by virtue of their existence. It’s a very American stance, I’ve decided, and the more I thought about it the more I realized how both right and wrong this writer friend of my is.

The problem I have with this idea of the exceptional character in fiction is that a steady diet of this brings about a sort of literary malnutrition. Yes, given the choice, we might all want to have endless days of cake (or chocolate, or whatever your particular fancy may be) at every meal, but to do so would risk your physical health. Yet when it comes to reading or movies or television it seems, according to this friend of mine, that we would desire nothing less than a main character who is exceptional, able to overcome all obstacles, save the day, and with whom we need to identify with in order to not feel cheated.

And now I finally understand what bothers me most about a lot of middle grade books and a great deal of genre fiction in general I’ve read lately. I realize that’s a fairly wide brush I’m wielding, and it includes a lot of sacred cows for some people, but on the whole there are way more books out there that are feeding young readers with the literary equivalent of chocolate cake for no other reason than the fact that it sells. Well, naturally, if you asked your average teen or tween if they wanted broccoli or ice cream for every meal how many would and how often would they choose the broccoli?

It’s no surprise that superhero movies are the mainstay of the industry right now because we have grown culturally inured to this idea that unless our main character has superhuman strength or intellect then we are somehow being given an inferior product. Even in “realistic” stories where an amnesic spy is on the run for his or her life they must be able to perform at a punishing level of abuse no human could endure. And so it is with books for children and young adults, where the hope of the world rests on a group of teens (exceptional wizards at that) to battle the ultimate evil in order to save mankind. Or it becomes the tale of adolescence viewed through the skewered lens of a bunch of teens who discover they are the offspring of Greek gods. Or that the ultimate sign of devotion is the one that waits hundreds of years and uses their vampiric strength to fight for your love.

Gone are the stories of kids behaving like kids. These are the “quiet” stories agents and editors reject because they know it is an uphill battle against a marketing department charged with finding the next flavor of excitement that generates quick sales. Like an addiction where the pain of withdrawal can only be erased with greater and greater doses of the chemical of choice, any fiction now requires heroes of increasing peril and impossibly raised stakes. Zuckerman’s Famous Pig would require more than a trio of words gingerly woven into a web to save his bacon today, he’d need to be saved from the sluices of the meat-packing plant with a last-minute rescue and a Rube Goldberg series of actions orchestrated by a spider in order to survive publishing today.

Perhaps this is why adults have been drawn to YA literature lately. Regular fiction, with stories about people (and animals) dealing with the heroic struggles of everyday life, pales in comparison alongside glittery vampires and futuristic games where children battle each other to the death. But what of the generation of young adults coming up? Having been feed a steady diet of action adventure and having their every literary whim filled will they continue to expect that of their adult reading? Will we see an ever-increasing level of fantasy infused in every successful fiction that is published?

Personally, I reject this idea that a main character must be exceptional to be accepted. This same writer friend, when I offered this counter-statement, warned me I might have a difficult time getting published if I didn’t acquiesce in some way.

I hope in the end I’m right and he’s wrong.

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In March of 1939 a 40-year old British gentleman stood before an audience at Radio City Music Hall and gave a lecture at the request of the Museum of Modern Art about how motion picture screenplays are designed.  For a modern writer of fiction looking to the current books on screenwriting perhaps the most interesting element would be how oddly compartmentalized the process was 70 years ago.

The speaker was Alfred Hitchcock.

As he explains, first a scenario is written up, no longer than a single sheet of paper.  He calls this the steelwork of the story but we would recognize it as plot summary, not unlike those written for query letters to editors and agents.

From there the scenario is rounded out with narrative until it runs about 100 pages… without dialog.  This treatment, as he calls it, is purely visual.  It explains what the characters do and what happens as a result.  Hitch doesn’t say it outright here, but back in the studio days the scenario could have been the brainchild of a producer while the director handled the treatment.

Here’s where things get interesting.  Once the treatment is settled, they hand it off to a dialog person (or team) to fill it in scene by scene.  At this point the writers handling the dialog are working up the characters and shading the nuances in their motivations.  Though they have narrative bits they don’t concern themselves with integrating them.  As Hitch says, when it’s over they have a pile of treatment pages and a pile of dialog pages.

From there they move onto a shooting script.  Here’s where everything comes together and scenes are plotted out shot by shot.  Even at this stage of the game they’re still adding things – bits suggested by dialog, condensing actions and characters, fine tuning visual themes and motifs. When it finally meets everyone’s satisfaction – director, producer and maybe a star with an ego – it’s cast, shot, edited and shown.

After it’s viewed the moviegoer tells someone about the film they’ve just seen, and Hitch says that however they summarize the movie that “is what you should have had on the piece of paper in the very beginning.”  Dialog, narrative voice, description, all these in service of that simple scenario that fills a single sheet of paper.

I find this both liberating and infuriating.  I don’t like the idea of a story being reduced to a simple series of events that take a character from point A to point B, and yet this is exactly how we are expected to pitch our stories.  Then again, how much easier it would be to set down that scenario and simply build the story up layer by layer until it was finished.

The problem is, of course, we aren’t trained to build stories like that, we’re taught to plot them.  We can choose whether or not to outline, we can decide to write out of order and shuffle things around later, we’re encouraged to mount a story along Freitag’s pyramid, but I have never heard it suggested that a story be constructed purely on the action, with dialog created on a second pass, and then a final merged draft constructed after that; everything is built whole from the main character’s desires and driving goal.

Hollywood no longer runs the studios the way they did back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, there are no bungalows with stables full of writers hammering out dialog as their apprenticeship for one day writing the final shooting script that gets them their credit.  And perhaps Hollywood movies have lost something by teaching the art of screenwriting as a one-man show that focuses on the mechanics of formatting over really building a story scene by scene the old-fashioned way.  But I see a possibility here of approaching the construction of fiction in a slightly different light…

Sure, start with a simple plot summary that can fit on a single sheet of paper.  Get those characters down there, explain what they want, and how they get it.  Then start fresh with a draft that’s just spewing what happens next, what I’ve heard one writer refer to as “one damn thing after another.” Don’t worry about motivation or even logic – those things can be ironed out in revisions – just follow the twisted path of that story to it’s conclusion.  Dictate the story and transcribe it, or use voice recognition software, but ramble that story into place.  Then break it up by scene and start playing around with dialog.  Play.  Play acting.  Toy with voices.  Give the characters character in what they say with no regard for fitting it in.  Then go back and do a merged revision of the two, taking into account the whole range of emotions and motivations that have come from the layering of dialog and narrative.

I think too often there is this sense that, when writing, we must try to fit in everything we can as we go.  There are exercises for writing character histories, methods of plotting chapter arcs that mirror story arcs, plots and outlines and charts that  jerry-rig a story into submission, where the actual writing becomes a sort of MadLib designed to keep everything on track.  There isn’t an organic development of ideas, not a lot of room for exploration, just plot-and-follow and get feedback on pacing and whether the narrative is hitting its marks.  We study stories this way as well, examining their plot structures like we’re examining the bone structure of a model’s face.  As if somehow quantifying the elements that “work” and comprise the whole can explain the final product.

I’m a little too far into my current story to start fresh, but I think the next time I’m getting ready to start a work of fiction I’m going to try this.

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Hmm.  I began this series a long time ago and never got around to the third part.  In Part One I talked about the magic of maps, and Part Two was about reincarnation and past life resonance.  Part three is a little slipperier and probably why I had put it off saved it for now.  It concerns nostalgia and why we crave it the same ways we do fiction.

Nostalgia is an ugly concept for some people as it tends to represent a fair amount of wistfulness, a sentimentality, a yearning, often of a time and place that in all reality was never as golden as memory portrays it. This the fallacy of back-to-basics thinking, that somehow if we could go back to simpler times that everything would be better. It may be a much deeper psychological desire to break from our current reality in an effort to feel more in control of our lives. And for those who see themselves more pragmatically, more as realists, the nostalgic is nothing short of turning out backs on past in an attempt to ignore the hard truths learned from it. Nostalgia is, to some, nothing less that mindless escapism.

Memory is fiction, a professor once told me in the context of a class on the memoir. Or to quote pop songwriter Harry Nilsson “You see what you wanna see, and you hear what you wanna hear. Dig?” But we tend to view memory and nostalgia as a personal viewpoint. Where one’s memory of events might differ from another’s we see discord, each view colored through the lens of individual perspective. But what if – and ‘what if’ being the key component in storytelling – what if we could visit the past in a way that was physically approximate yet general enough to include all? What could be learned from a backward-looking utopia that can be applied to our current lives, that could tell us something about ourselves?

This is the Disneyland Theory writ large.

Walt Disney unabashedly embraced nostalgia for entertainment purposes, for business purposes, but also as a way of creating a utopic vision of the past that could be experienced the way it might have been. He was clear that he wasn’t attempting to whitewash the past so much as he was trying to capture the essence of it. In this way his amusement park is the visual equivalent of igniting the imagination the same way a smell can rekindle specific memories of time and place. There are some smells that can instantly remove me from the moment and take me back forty years and instantly unlock moments I haven’t thought of since they first happened.

One of Disney’s early visions for the park included a big top circus that would have smelled like sawdust and cotton candy and been void of the rank carnies and drunken clowns. This circus tent never happened for practical reasons but it can’t be ignored that Disney was attempting to actually distort the experience of a big top circus rather than create an inviting fantasy. His personal memory as a child was not of a circus as it might have been but how it really was – full of scary, ugly adults that intruded upon his experience. There was no blind nostalgia, and his attempt to recreate an ideal circus based only on selective details would not have worked. And he had to know this on some level because he didn’t attempt to let his personal nostalgia enter into the design for the rest of the park.

What we do find in Disneyland is a general nostalgia, a composite of ideas from the past presented into a seamless pastiche that allows the South Pacific to merge with Old West which fades into New Orleans. There are details that suggest these different parts of the world, at different times in history, but rather than being sanitized they are simply an armature upon which park guests use their own experiences to complete the imagery. Rather than remain a passive observer of this nostalgia, as with the circus, guests move around and place themselves within the settings. Sitting in a small boat between a galleon and a walled city one doesn’t observe pirates at siege so much as one is caught in the middle of the experience: cannons roar, cannon balls splash the water (and park guests in the boats), the smell of water mingles with the mineral oil smoke in the air. There is no way any park guest could be reliving the personal nostalgia of events from 150 years previous. This is all part of the collective nostalgia.

We call on this collective nostalgia all the time in fiction. We rely on details of time and place to paint a picture in the minds of a reader as a way of gaining entrance to the story. Books that fail to provide enough details are viewed as inferior, books that are inaccurate to our knowledge and sense of setting are dismissed. But fiction is more than a collection of details and facts, it includes emotion evoked through words and actions. We take out own experiences and emotions and insert them freely as surrogates into the fictional characters we read about and, in turn, come to see through the character’s eyes.

It isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest by using details to tease out our own personal memories and experiences that Disneyland employs the elements fiction to allow us to view the past through a lens of our creation.

Every time I go to the park I have a strange dissociative moment at the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. As the boat leaves the dock and drifts through the faux bayou, with the LED fireflies on wires just above the surface of the water, drifting past the concrete banyan trees, I can’t help but feel like I’m floating though someplace I used to visit as a boy. But I never grew up in the south, never spent any days in my childhood floating in a boat on calm waters at night, never saw a banyan tree or fireflies until I was nearly 30 years old… but I had seen and done all these things before in fiction. The nostalgia of place that the ride provided was built on a base buried deep in stories, and together the fiction of literature and the fiction of place fused to become something that was at once very real and totally imaginary. But I had experienced it, felt it, and it churned up an emotion that was not at all unpleasant.

The memory is fiction, the fiction, memory. The nostalgia becomes the real, and vice versa. And what we learn is the value that can be gleaned from nostalgia is no less “true” as the resonant details of fiction. Nostalgia doesn’t ignore or rewrite history, people do by trying to manipulate nostalgia for their own purposes.

Yes, I know there are plenty of people who hate Disney, Disneyland, and everything the corporate Disney empire touches. Admittedly, I am at times conflicted because I think Disney and Co. get five things wrong for every one thing they get right. Maybe the ratio is higher than that. But where Walt Disney himself was involved the decisions were a little more personal, more intuitive, less calculated, which I think is why the park works on a number of levels for visitors. Granted, cultural mistakes have been made, history seemingly subverted, but not to the point of revisionism. Not initially at least. I’m not a Disney apologist, both the man and the organization have committed grave mistakes in the past. My point is only that, as an idea, using nostalgia as a lens through which people can revisit and experience the emotional truth within the fiction is not a misguided or evil approach. It is simply another way of looking at story.

Disney, the man, was a storyteller, and he knew how to churn up the emotional elements better than most. He understood this in animation and film, and he understood this to the core in designing the park that bears his name. The lasting success of Disneyland comes from a recognition that providing people with a physical location on which guests can overlay their own narratives – or even invent new ones – is a thing that feeds the soul. Stories, connection, memories, sensations, experiences… they are the things we actively seek out, and in doing so we build upon a certain level of nostalgia that is both personal and universal.

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