Jan 28, 2016

Watch & Learn - 6 Writing Mistakes to Avoid in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

Last time we looked at the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace, and the mistakes it can help us avoid. Today we move on to the second installment, Episode II - Attack of the Clones. And believe me, we've only scratched the surface of how mistakes such as these can damage your work.

That's a lot of lens flare, considering Abrams wasn't involved.
Class is in session

Jan 21, 2016

Is it Censorship, or is it Creative Choice?

News that Star Wars Episode VII has had its release date pushed back seven months has sparked a number of rumours. Chief among these is that the reason for the delay is to allow for script re-writes that will grant more development and screen time to fan-favourite characters Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron. Apparently the big cheeses over at Lucasfilm and Disney weren't expecting these to be the characters audiences connected with. Sources suggest that executives were sure it would be Kylo Ren who was the favourite, and this fed into the prominence of his merchandise, while toymakers were specifically instructed to leave Rey out, because of the belief that 'boy's toys' shouldn't feature female characters.

And this got me thinking a lot about the way we construct a story, as writers. Especially when writing a series, reader reaction is going to have some influence on your creative choices. Readers might love a character you thought was going to be forgotten. They may have zero interest in your favourite character, the one you've got so many plans for. What do you do?

Do you dig your heels in and write as you'd originally planned? You're taking a risk here. What if readers continue to show no interest in the characters and plotlines you wanted to focus on?

Do you change what you had planned, turning the focus to the fan-favourites? This might be a hard thing to do. Does this count as selling out? Have you compromised your artistic integrity?

There is no one universal answer to this, but it's naive to think that a writer can shield themselves from the influence of reader opinion. Something will change. Once you let your story out into the world, it's no longer really yours. Not completely. Part of it will always belong to the reader, and as you receive more feedback, you will have more factors to consider in all your decisions.

Is it wrong to stick to your guns and keep things the way you wanted them, regardless of what your readers want? No, I don't believe so. However, it's foolish to do this without accepting the risk that you will lose readers, and arrogant to assume that what readers want doesn't matter. No book or movie is perfect, and we shouldn't pretend our own work is any different. If someone later points out something they regard as a flaw, we must accept that our work is flawed, and decide if we're content with that, or if we want to do things differently in the future.

And neither is it wrong to change what you were planning. The term 'self-censorship' gets bandied about an awful lot. Any time I talk about the Bechdel-Wallace Test it is almost a guarantee that someone will make a comment about self-censorship, and ask why a writer should have to change their work just to satisfy what they see as an arbitrary condition. What's arbitrary or unimportant to one person, however, is an essential issue to another. We have to decide whether our own biases should determine what we write, or whether we're open to seeing things from another perspective.

Deciding to change something in response to feedback is not self-censorship. Nor is it self-censorship to make a decision in order to promote a particular idea. These are creative choices, made by artists who value not only their own ideas, but the feedback of their audience.

I believe completely in an author's responsibility to be honest about their work. So whether you're certain your work will be the best it can be by sticking to your original plans, or you want to do whatever it takes to make your readers happy, or you fall anywhere between those two extremes, write the best books you can. Accept both praise and criticism, because no matter what choice you make, you'll never receive all the praise you want, and you'll always receive more criticism than you'd like. ;-)

Jan 8, 2016

Watch & Learn - 6 Writing Mistakes to Avoid in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

It's a new year, and a new set of Watch & Learn posts are coming! Having already looked at the lessons writers can take from the original Star Wars trilogy, I'm going to delve further into the Star Wars saga, and look at the prequels. As I've previously mentioned, I have no love for the prequels, and they are widely regarded as bad movies that miss the point of what Star Wars is all about. But just because something is bad, doesn't mean we can't learn from it. So for the prequels, we're going to look at the mistakes made, and why it's important for writers to avoid these in their own work.

We start with the beginning.

Remember when we thought this movie was going to be good?
Disclaimer: I'm aware that some of the issues I'll be raising in these posts are addressed in comics, books, tv shows, or video games. However it's important as a writer to never assume that a reader has any information other than what you present them with. That assumption can lead to lazy writing, and leaving readers confused and unsatisfied. So we will be examining these movies without the context of additional media, judging them on their own merits. That being said, as these are prequels released out of chronological order with the original trilogy, we will also assume that the intended audience will have seen the original trilogy.

Time for some hard lessons. Class is in session.

Dec 16, 2015

Watch & Learn - 6 Writing Lessons From Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

It's finally here. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has premiered. It is a new world, a new story. I won't get to see it until the 23rd, so you can rest easy and read this article without fear of spoilers.

We started this special Watch & Learn series with A New Hope, learning about making your world feel real, keeping the reader focused on character emotions, and an introduction to themes and symbols.

Next we looked at The Empire Strikes Back, and saw how to address character development, letting the reader see the villain's strength, and the continuing development of themes.

Today we reach the final chapter of the original trilogy.

The Force is strong in my family...

Class is in session, let's see what we can learn.

Dec 9, 2015

Watch & Learn - 6 Writing Lessons From Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits cinemas next week. I can't remember the last time I was so excited for a movie.

Continuing on from last week's post, today we'll look at The Empire Strikes Back.

Class is in session.

Dec 4, 2015

Watch & Learn - 6 Writing Lessons From Star Wars: A New Hope

We're on to the final countdown now. It's December. In just a couple of weeks, we will finally get to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Ba da-da daa, daa. Ba da da daa-daa. Ba da da daa- daa...
I cannot hope to contain my excitement. We have a diverse cast of new characters. We have the return of on-location shooting and practical effects. We have Han and Chewie, the Millenium Falcon blasting across the screen, Leia as the leader of the Resistance, and everything looks amazing.

So I want to indulge my reborn passion for Star Wars here, and devote the last of this year's Watch & Learn posts entirely to Star Wars. Since I have little to no love for the prequels, we'll be focusing on the original trilogy. And more to the point, I will not be including reference to any of the changes Lucas has made over the years. No young Anakin at the end of Jedi, no extra Jabba scene, no freaking Big No from Vader when he turns on the Emperor. Han didn't just shoot first in this classroom: Han shot, and then Greedo died. End of story.

With that out of the way, let's get stuck into Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

There is NO WAY Lucas always planned for Leia to be Luke's sister...

Lock your s-foils in attack position, class is in session.

Nov 19, 2015

Watch & Learn: Ghostbusters

Our last lesson contained a lot of information, but not every movie has such a wide range of advice to give, or even needs to spread its advice out over so many topics. Sometimes the better lesson is to nail down a small number of story elements really well, and let them carry the story. When you have a strong core story and characters, the rest will become much easier.

For today's lesson, I'm taking you back to my childhood, and one of the classic movies of all time.

Who ya gonna call?

It's a simple movie, nothing too complex in terms of themes or issues. And it shies away from the grander existential moral quandary of imprisoning departed souls. But people love Ghostbusters. Most fans have a special place in their heart for this movie, and you want your own readers to regard your books in a similar way.

So strap on your proton pack. Class is in session.

Nov 12, 2015

Watch & Learn: Fame (2009)

It's November! That means all across the world there are countless authors hard at work on their NaNoWriMo projects.

To help get everyone into the writing groove, I wanted to post another Watch & Learn. I kicked this series off with the lessons we can take from the latest Star Wars trailer, but this time we're going somewhere a little different.

I'm gonna live forever...

Now, I'm going to come right out and say this. I am not a fan of the original 1980 Fame directed by Alan Parker. I've always felt it was never really able to make up its mind if it was meant to be a musical, a comedy, or a serious drama. It tries to be all three and while the few emotional gut-punching scenes are powerful, I feel the rest of the movie flounders.

While the 2009 remake is a lot less gritty and dark, and still has its flaws, I feel it has a much stronger sense of what it's trying to be, and is far superior in terms of storycraft and character development. We'll be looking at both the movie's strong and weak points today.

So take your places, class is in session. And spoilers ahoy.

Oct 27, 2015

Karen Walker Guest Post

Today I've got a fellow author paying a visit. Karen Walker is one of the first people I connected with when I first set out on my writing and blogging journey, so it's a thrill to have her here to talk about her new novel, The Wishing Steps.


Thank you, Paul, for hosting me today. 

2009 was a major turning point in my life. My memoir, which took ten years to bring to fruition, was published in February. My husband and I had a dream trip planned to go to Machu Picchu (high on my bucket list). Then I had to have shoulder surgery and we couldn’t go. We had a limited amount of time in which to use the airline tickets. The only places we could find to travel during the timeframe were Scotland and Ireland.

Terrified to tackle the narrow, winding roads on our own, and fearful we wouldn’t find any of the sites we were interested in seeing, we hired drivers. Our trip began in Edinburgh, Scotland. On the second day, as soon as I stood amidst the ruins of Balnauran of Clava, a 2,000-year-old burial site, I heard an unfamiliar inner voice say, “Tell my story.” Having never heard voices before, I was taken aback and wasn’t sure I heard what I thought I heard. So I said, “Sorry, I’m on vacation.”

The voice came again a week later when I was exploring the Wishing Steps at Blarney Castle in Ireland. This time, the energy I felt was stronger and harder to ignore. We finished our trip and when I came home I thought that was the end of the mysterious voice. But it wasn’t. As I said, I’d never heard voices before so when this voice/energy continued to plague, er, speak to me, I knew I needed to listen.
The writing coach and editor I’d used for my memoir (Mark David Gerson, www.markdavidgerson.com) wrote a book called “Voice of the Muse.” I decided to do the exercises in the book and work with him in private sessions as well. I might write a companion piece to The Wishing Steps detailing the journey from hearing that voice for the first time to finishing the book. But what I can say here briefly is that it became a deeply profound and moving spiritual journey to tune into this voice of wisdom, which I call Goddess, and listen to its guidance. What the book became is my imagining what it might have been like when Goddess came to the very first woman back in prehistoric times. The story took off from there.
Here’s the scoop on The Wishing Steps.

Three Women and a Single Story That Unites Them Across the Millennia
"Totally engrossing. A must-read for today’s wise woman!” Rev. Kathleen McKern Verigin, minister/priestess
Brighid, Ashleen and Megan: Bound through time by a curious light, a mysterious voice and a call they dare not ignore. Yet in obeying this strange force, the women must face soul-searing trials that call into question everything they know and believe — about themselves and about the world around them.
“Guaranteed to inspire you to a deeper level of spirituality and a new appreciation for Goddess.” Rev. Clara Z. Alexander
Karen Helene Walker is a widely published essayist and author of the 2009 memoir, Following the Whispers. When she isn’t writing, you will often find Karen performing in nursing homes and retirement communities as part of the Sugartime or Sophisticated Ladies musical groups, traveling with her husband of 20 years, Gary, or relaxing with a good book at their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Visit the author’s website at www.karenhelenewalker.com

The Wishing Steps is available for purchase now at: Amazon.com (both print and ebook), Kobo, Barnes and Noble and iTunes.

Oct 22, 2015

Watch & Learn: The Star Wars Trailer

A little while ago I mentioned wanting to do a new series of posts extracting writing lessons from movies. Well, here we go. And I thought we'd ease into things with something short and easy to watch. Our first subject is the final trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Let's watch it again:

Confession time: I adore film trailers. When they're done properly, they can be works of art in their own right. And the trailer for The Force Awakens is one of the best I've ever seen. I'd go so far as to say it's a perfect example of how to make a film trailer.

But we're not here to look at how to make a trailer; we're here to learn how to improve our writing, taking lessons from one. So sit back, class is in session.

There are three lessons we can take from the trailer:

  1. How to evoke feeling without spelling things out.
  2. How to make something old feel fresh and new.
  3. Showing respect for your readers.
Lesson 1: Evoke feeling

The one thing everyone's saying about this trailer is how emotional it makes them feel. And I get it. From 01:22 when the Force Theme comes in (one of my favourite pieces of music of all time), I get tears in my eyes. On repeat viewings, we can see more points where we're drawn to care for these characters.

Early in the trailer, we see Rey, the scavenger who declares she is "no one." Her portrayal echoes Luke Skywalker's desperate wish to leave his home and make something of his life. Something every one of us can relate to. The sense of being a forgettable nobody is a universal fear. So immediately, the trailer connects with a deep, primal feeling, particularly in young children. 

Next up is Finn, the turncoat Stormtrooper. "I have nothing to fight for" he says. A lost sense of purpose is a common problem faced as we grow older, especially during our teenage years and early twenties. So here's an emotional hook for a slightly older audience. 

Of course, no story is complete without its villains, and so we are next shown the First Order forces. Kylo Ren gives a threatening promise of finishing what Darth Vader started, and we see that the First Order looks every bit as well-equipped and well-organised as the Empire. With the way the trailer is structured, despite not being told anything specific about the plot, we get the distinct impression that the Resistance forces are in trouble. 

Let's take a step back from the trailer itself and consider the naming conventions. The villains are the First Order, a name that evokes strength and authority, but is also deeply sinister, suggestive of ingrained propaganda and tyranny. Finn's words, that he was "raised for one thing" support this.

Meanwhile, the heroes fight for the Resistance. The idea of a resistance suggests a very weak force, compared to their opponents. Even the Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy had a more structured-sounding name. An alliance means command hierarchy, even political leaders. But a resistance is a rag-tag group who have banded together to fight back. The last hope against a superior, despotic government.

I'll finish up this section with Han's lines.

"It's true. All of it. The Dark Side. The Jedi. They're real."

This is the final part of the age progression. Remember that there are multiple generations who'll be seeing this movie. The very young, experiencing it for the first time. The ones Rey is there to reach. Then there are the teens and younger adults, who may have had their first Star Wars experience by seeing The Phantom Menace. The ones Finn is there for, who might be a little bit doubtful as to what they should expect. 

Han is the oldest. And he is there to connect with the older viewers. The ones who grew up on Star Wars, the ones who may have even seen the original trilogy in theatres. When he responds to Rey, he's literally telling old and new audiences "This story is here, and it's for you." It's reassurance for those who might still have doubts that the Star Wars movie franchise can come back from the disappointing prequel trilogy. More to the point, his words also hint that the Jedi have become even more of a myth, that the guardians of peace and justice have not been restored, and that now is the time for them to return.

Lesson 2: Bring old and new together

I've often said that pursuing true originality in fiction is a bad move. Strive to write the best story you can, and don't worry so much about whether or not it's been done before. Few places can show this like Star Wars. A 40 year-old franchise with countless stories across all forms of media, there is pretty much no way to be sure of telling a Star Wars story that doesn't resemble an older one. 

So how to make the story feel new and fresh, while still paying respect to what's gone before? Well, look at the trailer again. We first get Rey, a new character, then we see Stormtroopers, a familiar sight. This leads to Finn, another new character, and a hurtling TIE Fighter which mirrors the escape pod sequence from A New Hope that brought Artoo and Threepio to Tatooine. Subtle suggestions remind us that we're in an established world with a long legacy, but never let us forget that this is a new story about new characters. 

Look at how Han Solo and the Millenium Falcon are used. Han is the primary original trilogy character used throughout the trailers. He doesn't dominate, he supports. His presence reinforces the new elements. We see the new characters on board the Falcon, ready to set off on their adventure. But unlike the prequel trilogies, what we see is not dominated by callbacks to the older movies. This is Passing the Torch 101. Old and new coming together.

In a sense, we've seen this all before. Stormtroopers, lightsabers, heroes scrambling to repel an attack while TIE Fighters fill the air. It all harkens to the original trilogy, the desert planet, the ice planet, the forest planet, but in a way that acknowledges the relevance of the past stories but stands on its own, rather than trying to coast along, hoping the reminders of the original trilogy will be enough to carry the audience through.

Also worth noting is the title of the movie. This isn't Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It's The Force Awakens. The previous trilogies are done, they're over. This is not something trying to shove its way into that saga. This is a new saga, one that anyone can enjoy. There are things which are familiar, and all new characters and events to discover.

Lesson 3: Respect your audience

Han's lines are important in more ways than one. On the surface, he's establishing a major aspect of the setting. The ongoing absence of the Jedi and the passing of his adventures into myth. But on another level, he's giving a very important message to us, the audience. 

Everyone's made fun of George Lucas for how he changes things, seemingly on a whim. He's been accused of having no respect for fans of the franchise time and again. From the racist stereotypes to Greedo shooting first, the "Nooooo!" scene, Anakin's virgin birth and 'midichlorians,' it's safe to say nothing was sacred back when the prequels were being made. If Lucas wanted to change something to make more money, he did it.

But that isn't happening here.

It would mean nothing if JJ Abrams came along and said "I promise you guys I'm going to do a good job!" If anything, it would come off as desperate, and a sure sign that the movie was going to be poorly-received.

No, here, Han Solo himself tells us that the stories are true. Star Wars. Our stories, the ones we've grown up watching and loving, are all true. We're being assured that the people behind this movie care about those stories as much as we, the audience, do. They matter. 

"They're real."

Class dismissed.