Picture This: A Closer Look at the Art of Illustration

Illumination

In the American corner of the book world, there’s a weird rite-of-passage inflicted on young readers somewhere between ages 9 and 12.

The social expectation is that young readers will embrace the chapter book and esteem the illustrated works of their youth as nothing more than “kids’ stuff.”

Usually, this clever ruse to advance the reading levels of our youth works to the mutual advantage of parent and child. The child acquires a valuable life skill, and the adult has to do fewer dramatic readings of Captain Underpants.

This has not always been the humanity’s attitude toward books with pictures.

Back in Europe’s Dark Ages, before the novel, the printing press, or public education were facts of life, literature was not fun and accessible.

It was exclusive and boring.

Persons with power (including but not limited to the head honchos in the Catholic Church) had mostly managed to stifle literacy in non-clergymen so they could keep the knowledge contained in the written word to themselves.

Yay absolute power 😑

The problem was, since the populous at large could not read, they also could not tell the difference between a book of priceless, irreplaceable parchment and a stack of grocery lists.

As a result, the only documents that survived the semi-perpetual sackings of Dark Age Europe were the illustrated texts. Even the commonest man could interpret pictures on a page as something rather special in contrast to a book of words that meant nothing more to him than any other book of words.

Just Keep Scrolling

Later on, when the printing press and more widespread literacy came along, elaborate color pictures were phased out for the same reason (I believe) they get phased out for grownups, today:

Expense.

Illustrations are expensive, time-consuming endeavors, and the common man only had / has so much disposable income for books.

Therefore, more cost-effective books became the standard, and those containing illumination-style artwork became the relics of the rich.

Now, there are those who could argue that if authors do their jobs right, their books should not need illustrations.

That’s true to a degree, and I reckon lots of authors like the challenge of conjuring visions of dragons for their readers with some carefully-chosen magic words.

Likewise, the revival of the comic book industry and the gradual elevation of the graphic novel as a genuine art form have greatly helped legitimized books with illustrations.

Yet, there’s still a stigma on illustrated works that sometimes gets them dismissed as “childish.”

This is unfortunate because historically, the illustration of text was irrelevant how good the book was. It was merely a means of adding value to the text.

If you do not share my opinions on this topic, feel free take this all with as many grains of salt as you require. As a lover of kids lit who never completely outgrew illustrations, I think we “grownups” do ourselves a disservice if ever we dismiss illustrated works as “kids’ stuff.”

Also, let’s be real, Fellow Writer whose ears have been relentlessly pelted with the dogmatic phrase “Show, don’t tell” over the years. Can you say with certainty that an adjective-filled paragraph describing the tremulous awe of looking a dragon in the eye is more exciting to our readers than actually showing them a dragon with the help of an illustration ?

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Let me give you one of my favorite examples of how, as they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

For reasons that would take time to explain, I got to work with a terrific artist named Karen Swarts in producing the illustrations for a Jeff Scott book called Mallory and the Dragon.

The story begins with a little girl and her grandfather in a kitchen having breakfast. The little girl is between 7 and 8 years old and Grandfather may or may not be wearing a poncho.

That’s it. Those were the only clues Karen got in the context of the story about what the drawing might look like, and this is what she came up with:

1-Mallory-and-the-Dragon-Interior-final-KS

(I have since become a hopeless addict of this lady’s work. If you’d like to see more of her stuff, check out https://www.keaswartz.com)

In short, I guess a book with illustrations, once we reach a certain age, is like pants with no pockets. It’s not necessarily a hardship if they aren’t there, but it’s generally a nice surprise if they are.

And while anyone would complain about a garment with pockets / a book with pictures isn’t necessarily crazy, I think it’s safe to say that person has different priorities from me.

How to hype an aging book: too old to be “new release” and too young to be “classic”

Old books

As a rule, there are two kinds of books we discuss as book-lovers. One is the new release (“new,” as in “negative 6 months to one year old”) and the other is the classic.

I understand why this is so.

Classics are well-loved, perennial favorites, and new releases are our fellowship reads by which we bond with our fellow book-lovers as we semi-collectively take the same flight-of-fancy with a bold, new protagonist for the first time.

But what about the book that is neither a new release or a classic?

Unless the algorithms that govern the hyping of Amazon books have changed a whole lot in recent history, authors must obtain a significant number of reviews in the first few days or even hours after his or her book is released (I want to say the number of reviews is between 30 and 50). Otherwise, that book, like an uncourted debutante, languishes in a corner, unloved and forgotten before it’s gotten so much as its first wrinkle.

With so much value placed on new releases, how can authors hope to promote their books if they are too old to be “new release” and too new to be “classic”?

I’m still trying to subdue the elusive marketing beast with the rusty, old harpoons aboard my own authorship, but here are some avenues for the dispensing slightly older books that I have unearthed in my Melville-esque quest:

Joke book

In order from least to most expensive…

1. Offer books free in exchange for reviews. This item is #1 on my list because as a fledgling author, my well-meaning advisers said things like, “Never work for free,” and “Don’t undervalue your merchandise. You’ll make it look cheap.” To folks who may have heard similar advice and are hesitant to disobey it, consider this: your book doesn’t have to stay free. In fact, a limited time offer might spur potential reviewers toward acquiring your book, even if they don’t read it right away. Also, in the case of pursuing reviews, it’s less that you’re giving your work away than it is a trade; 1 review in exchange for 1 free book. That beats the living hell out of a Kirkus review, which costs $425 for one, lousy review (I can’t say enough nasty things about Kirkus, actually. If you like’m, cool, but I think they’re slimy, dishonest predators). For more on how to offer an e-book to potential reviewers, check out www.netgalley.com or www.goodreads.com/giveaway

2. Talk to the local press. Whether it’s your hometown or a town you’re merely passing through, sometimes news days are slow, and reporters could use a human interest story to help fill the pages of their periodicals / time allotment on their broadcast. If they say “No thank you. We’ve got bags of author interviews,” that’s that, but sometimes they don’t. And again, it costs you nothing to ask.

3. Donate your book to a library. There’s no guarantee anyone will pick it up, but unlike giving away dozens of free copies to individual reviewers for maybe one read apiece, you can give away one copy and potentially get dozens of people to read it. My favorite is Little Free Library, but if ever you visit a brick-and mortar library that is a trifle underfunded, they’ll likely be overjoyed to take any free books in good condition, including yours.

4. Stage a radio give-away. If your platform is new, and you can’t picture fans signing up for a give-away on your website, contact your local radio station (by phone, not e-mail. E-mail is too easily ignored these days), and tell them you’d like to do a give-away on their morning show. This might cost you something, but morning shows are boring, and there are people at work / on route to work who listen every day just for a chance at the give-aways. Better yet, if you can line up an event later that week, then encourage the radio host to announce that anyone who missed out on this give-away can find you at Library / Book Store du Jour at your upcoming event, you can increase your odds of a successful book-signing* through radio advertising.

*Notice how “book-signing” doesn’t have it’s own bullet point? That’s because book-signings are long, excruciating ordeals seldom worth the headaches they induce… unless you’re famous already or you’ve done a kick-ass job promoting it which–let’s be real–if we were good at self promotion, our books wouldn’t be the languishing orphans we gotta bust out butts to promote years after their release.

5. Network at trade shows. Three ways authors get into trade shows are “Buy booth space,” “Speak on a panel,” or “Be famous already.” Booths can be expensive, but sometimes, you get what you pay for (for instance, Book Expo America in NYC is a yearly pilgrimage for bibliophiles of all sorts, and there’s a high likelihood of making money back, whereas high-profile conventions in Hawaii or Puerto Rico are likely to be little more than super scenic tax deductions). If you are charming and can speak with authority regarding anything at all in the writing world, that may qualify you to be a panelist or featured speaker at such an event. While you often won’t get paid to speak, someone will want to buy your book as a result of seeing you on stage. And since lots of book-oriented introverts would rather get hit by a truck than speak in public, it may be you get pegged as “That [guy or gal] who speaks at events so more timid writer-types don’t have to,” which could lead to more speaking gigs. Plus, YouTube. So many convention visitors are there specifically to get footage for their YouTube vlogs. You never, never know how much exposure you’ll get from one brave moment of mingling with the book-friendly public.

So, those are my tips on hyping older-but-worthy book titles.

If you can think of some I missed, feel free to comment. I’m still learning much of the marketing junk we all need to know to be successful. I’d love to know your thoughts on how to keep your marvelous books in the hands of readers and out of the sad realms of obscurity.

Have a splendid week. I shall word at you more soon, I hope.

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When Bad Books Happen to Good Readers: 5 things we can learn from writers we despise

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We all have our own little lists of books that inspire us to be better humans and writers by virtue of their existence. That first, great novel that made us feel like the world of fiction was full of adventure and possibilities still gives us butterflies akin to those we felt for our first love.

Then, there are other books that do not deserve to occupy space on our bookshelves next to the works of J. M. Barrie or Lewis Carroll: the kind so terrible we hesitate to recycle them because “Future Toilet Paper” is too lofty a title for these wretched objects.

While no one likes the sadder-by-wiser style lessons bestowed on us by these books, here are 5 such lessons that may or may not soothe the sting caused by the disappointment we find within their pages:

  1. Good books are things of beauty. I’ve asked multiple editors if reading is still pleasurable or if it feels like work after having done it all day. They say it is pleasurable, but they are extra appreciative of good books. Bad books are something they gotta be paid to endure, which leads us to…
  2.  Life is too short for bad books. Many book reviewers are inclined to speak of their “Did not finish” pile as though it’s a locus of shame: “Sorry, everybody. I know some of you love this novel. I just couldn’t do it.” Readers should not need to apologize for knowing a waste of time when they see one and moving on. If a book doesn’t bring you pleasure, and no one is paying you to read / correct / review it, please oh please, spend that time you could’ve spent finishing that book you hate on seeking out more books to love.
  3. There is no such thing as an unpublishable book. Agents and publishing bigwigs will sometimes describe a book as “unpublishable,” and that is misleading. What they mean by that is “I lack the patience it takes to find a market for this book.” If Lolita and Handbook for Mortals made their way onto the Barnes & Noble bookshelves by any route other than that which leads through Self-Pub Hell (not that all Self-Pub is Hell, just the inhospitable corners where-in reading its bookish contents feels like a punishment), your book can make it onto those shelves, as well.
  4.  Sometimes, the power of marketing triumphs over good narrative. As much as we like to believe excellent books will sell themselves, how much of why we pick up a book has nothing to do with its quality? Folks picked up The Red Queen because the cover art was so exceptional, readers saw it and said, “I must possess it!” Books that bear the name “William Shatner” get picked up on the regular because they break the “so bad, it’s good” barrier. One of my least favorite books is sci-fi offering that could easily be marketed as “Star Wars meets 9/11 attacks.” There is nothing subtle, creative, or good about the story. But Dude’s book is a best seller with his publisher because the cover is amazing, the publisher hypes the snot out of it, and the author knocks himself out to promote his book at event after event. So as far as the publisher is concerned, quality books are less coveted than an author who is good at marketing. Marketing will sell the book. Quality will keep it in the hands of the reader and off the shelves at Good Will.
  5. Bad books inspire us to write better books. As much as I’d like to believe the novel is an author’s gift to the world, I’m a spite writer. Some of my best work has come from my looking at someone’s awful work and saying, “I can do better.” If you aren’t a spite writer (it’s honestly better for your soul if you’re not), the best advice I’ve read, heard, and given is “write what you want to read.” If you’re sick of seeing naught but nasty stereotypes or the dialogue is atrocious in your favorite genre, think of how you would fix it, and write a better story around it than you’ve hitherto seen. If you’ve encountered it in fiction enough to get sick of it, there’s likely someone else who’s sick of it too, and that guy or gal might be your biggest fan. Unless you don’t write the book. Then, the both of you might be stuck with commiserating with one another cruddy books.

So if you think you suffered through your copy of Twilight, Slammed, or Divergent for nothing, fear not. We can thank our lucky stars not all books are like the same, and revel in the books that matter!

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Better Heroes through Fabulous Villains: 5 tips and tricks

Snidely Whiplash

Back when the Roman Empire was a somewhat smaller world-consuming juggernaut than was it before the zenith of its rise, its main rival was nation called Carthage. History teachers have been known speak of a Carthaginian named Hannibal who herded elephants over the Alps in a valiant effort to destroy as much of the Roman army as possible. These teachers tend to focus more on Hannibal’s elephants than the fact that, well, he lost! The Romans just sidestepped the large, lumbering elephants and shot the Carthaginians with missiles.

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So if history is written by the winners, why did Rome immortalize Hannibal as a brilliant strategist rather than the resource-wasting, not-winner he was?

Smarter people than I am speculate the amended story made the history books because Rome understood the power of a well-told war story. There is little glory for the hero who defeats a lame-ass villain with one punch.

Give to Ceasar

So in order to make Rome look fierce in the eyes of posterity, they had to make Carthage look fierce as well.

While revisionist history is a sad, sad thing for lots of reasons, the storytelling principle employed by the Romans to make themselves look good is pretty solid. In order to get heroic deeds from our heroes, we need to give them truly villainous villains.

To that end, here are 5 things to bear in mind when conjuring your main character’s arch nemesis on the typewritten page:
1. Motivation – This is where authors get to humanize their villains via tragic backstory, good intentions gone twisted, or… no, I guess those are the 2 biggies. In farce, the villain need be nothing more than an obstacle for the hero to overcome. Comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and The Great Muppet Caper (I would totally go to see that double feature) go so far as to give the villain a chance to explain the motivation behind his dastardly deeds, and he proudly excuses them all in saying “I’m a villain!” While that might be how the hero sees it, a villain’s villainy is generally just a tool by which he aims to achieve a goal. For instance, Captain Hook not just a mean old man who kills small boys for fun. He seeks vengeance because a while back, a sadistic delinquent cut off his hand and fed it to a crocodile. Knowing why an antagonist is what he is doesn’t make him less antagonizing, but it makes his actions seem way more believable than a villain whose evil only exists to serve the plot.

2. Charm – For my money, the best villains do not bellow and do not lose control. They are smooth-talking con men or women with style, finesse, and all the best lines. Then, around 2/3 of the way through the adventure, they do something truly cruel to a character who is precious to you, and you hate them so very much. The betrayal feels far deeper because they made you love them in the first half of the story.

3. Good points – You don’t have give your villain a cornucopia of positive attributes, but a few here and there will make him seem way more real to your readers. Does the his evil have boundaries? Is he volunteer firefighter or an advocate against child prostitution when he’s not committing genocide? And how does he see himself? Cartoonishly villain-esque as he now seems to anyone but himself and his mama, Adolf Hitler did not see himself as Lex Luthor on crack. He saw himself as Superman fighting for truth, justice, and the Aryan Way.

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4. Intelligence – few things are more disappointing than if the villain is hopelessly out-classed by the hero. The best / worst example I can think of is King Stephan from the Maleficent movie a while back. There was a multitude of things wrong with that movie, but as far as characters were concerned, every one of them could be distilled down into a 2-word, “Adjective Noun” combo:

Stephan = Angry King
Aurora = Happy Princess
Phillip = Naive Prince
Flora / Fauna / Merryweather = Ditsy Nanny

Maleficent was an “Adjective Noun” combo as well, but it was one that left lots of room for expansion. As a writer or an actor, you can do a lot within the bounds of “Scorned Fairy.” Not so much with “Angry King.” To keep your characters from coming down with “Adjective Noun-itis,” it pays to make your villains smart and amazing, or it’s not satisfying when the hero defeats them.

*Pro tip: As much as it pains us cram the complicated characters we love into “Adjective Noun” combos (like “Confused Runaway = Huckleberry Finn” or “Brooding heir = Hamlet”), its actually awesome practice for when the time comes to condense our own characters for elevator pitches, agent inquiries, or book cover summaries.

5.  Depth – Is your villain interesting enough that he / she / it / they could have their own book? While you need never explore a world where up is down, good is bad, and your hero switches places with his dreaded adversary Freaky Friday style, it’s nice to have well-developed enough adversaries that you could. In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the first half of the book is whiny narration rife with self-pity on the part of the title character. It’s a long, damn time before we get to hear the monster’s perspective on why he’s stalking his creator and killing the folks Frankenstein loves. When the monster explains the hell he’s been through since his creator abandon him, it gets real hard to see Dr. Frankenstein as less monstrous than his tormentor. If we’d seen the plot unfold from the moment the monster awakes as a confused newborn in a 9 foot body, whose father runs screaming at the sight of him, Dr. Frankenstein starts to look suspiciously like the real villain, here.

In summary, a hero is only as good as his or her villain, and the most interesting villains are the ones are the ones who bear traits that make them relatable to us or the hero in some way.

Also, Alps and Elephants don’t get along (someone write that children’s book, please. I will twelve kinds of buy a copy).

 

 

Why we (still) love Superman: 5 Tips for Writing Relatable Heroes

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My high school lit teacher was pretty laid-back, but one thing that seriously tightened his sphincter was when misinformed students referred to their main character as “the hero.” He much preferred the word “protagonist” to “hero” because in the classical sense, heroes are a highly specialized brand of protagonist who are, well, not that interesting.

Starting all the way back in the B.C. days of literature, a hero was a larger-than-life, practically perfect guy, who is permitted one epic flaw –  his fatal flaw – which 9 times out of 5 was what his nemesis used to exploit and destroy him.

And he died.

Always.

If the paragon didn’t die at the end of his story, he could be a legend, a myth, or a force of nature, but he was not, by the classical rules, considered a hero (for examples of this, think of your Lancelots, your Othellos and your Achilles-s-s).

The long suffering teacher who bemoaned our incorrect usage of the word “hero” also gave us the best writing advice we ever got in our lives:

In order to have a believable characters, they cannot be wholly good or evil.

Even though this advice ruined, like, all the Disney movies forever and ever, it was still tremendous writing advice, and I’ve never met anyone who could prove it wrong.

Yet, even within the boundaries of semi-classical heroism, there are several ways to make your nigh perfect paragon more interesting to the reader or at least understand the challenges you face in trying to make him or her less boring. The list that follows is my own top 5 tips on how to write an awesomer, more lovable superhuman.

Superman ii

Since here in America, the best known fictional possesser of all these attributes might very well be DC Comics’ own Superman, I aim to use him as a reference point more than once.

  1. Weakness – Superman was the first comic book hero DC ever produced (way back in 1938, says the internet), so his creators understandably had to work out some kinks with him before he *e-hem* took off. One huge problem they cited with the early comics was that Superman was perfect. Since perfect people always win, there are no stakes, and it’s hard to get readers invested in what happens to your gallant hero’s story. To make Superman’s adventures less boring for the readers, Jerry Siegel and his team of writers introduced a modicum of weakness for the bad guys to exploit in Superman, such as kryptonite, the inability to see through lead, and the charms of Lois Lane. After nearly a century of busting Metropolis bad guys, Superman is still unlikely to fail long-term, but when he struggles to do what needs to be done, we can totally relate to him because we all know what it’s like to struggle.
  2. Motivation – True heroes like Superman or Captain America have reasons for fighting that don’t actually make sense to mortal man on a personal level. Sometimes, the only thing that drives them to do good in the world is that they were born to do it. Of course, if I’m honest, I’ve met folks who felt strongly they were born to do what they’re doing (preachers, doctors, and mommies come most readily to mind), and their approach to life might very well be reflected by the adventures of Superman / Captain America. For everyone else, there’s the more practical, less idealistic protagonist like Batman or Iron man who is motivated to do the right thing for lots of reason. Vengeance, insecurity, fear, money, love, spite, and friendship all play a part in their decision-making from moment to moment. The fact that their motives are complicated seems more real to us as an audience, because part of being human means waking up now and then and thinking ” ‘Because it’s the right thing to do’ is not a good enough reason for me to go to work, today. What else ya got?” Superman iii
  3. Growth – Here’s where protagonist like Batman have Superman beat pretty completely. See, Superman is the most human when he / Clark Kent is a misfit kid who hasn’t hit his stride in heroics. We have to suffer through a lot of endless space chases and Russell Crowe to get any humanity out of The Man of Steel, but when we find it, poor Clark is in the embarrassing throws of a nigh unto autism-style breakdown because he can hear everything, and the sensory overload is freaking him out. And that’s awesome storytelling! It’s heartbreaking and visceral and shows Clark as a kid who does not see the nonsense he’s enduring as a positive attribute. He just needs all the voices he hears to shut up so he can think, already. By the time The Justice League rolls around, he’s grown all the way into his hubris, and  he thinks what he’s doing is right all the time because he’s the one who’s doing it. Batman, on the other hand, adapts in nearly every issue. He’s moody, he’s driven, he lays the smack-down on Gotham’s most wanted, he watches movies with his adopted child, he sees the child grow into a young man,  he starts getting old and has to either build a better batsuit or train his replacement… Because he’s a human who has to adapt to circumstances that arise on his life journey, he the by no means same Batman he was in the first comic. Superman hit a plateau of awesome  early on and  pretty  much stayed there. Perhaps that’s the real reason why ancient storytellers killed off their classical heroes. Once they hit the character growth ceiling, they weren’t any fun to write anymore.
  4. A Foe Worth Fighting – I aim to cover this more completely in a whole, other article about villains, but in essence, if your villain is lame, your hero is lame. The point of the villain is to provide a challenge the hero must rise to meet. When your villain is badass, so is the hero.
  5. A World Worth Saving – This plays into motivation, but differs slightly in that a classical hero isn’t actually fighting for this world. If he’s Greek, he’s killing time as a hero until he can enter the Elysian Fields in valorous death. If he’s Norse, he’s berserk-ing ass off until the Valkyries show up and escort him to Valhalla. Not so with Superman. Smallville and Metropolis are special to him because they’re home. Home is a universal theme that stirs up all the emotions, and while it doesn’t always make us beat up bad guys in order to protect it on the regular, there’s usually something that matters to us at home that would make us want to defend it, if we had to. Also, I know plenty of cops, fire-fighters, and soldiers who identify strongly with Superman and really do beat up bad guys to protect home on the regular. So there’s that.

Anyway, those are my top 5 iotas of insight about how to better understand / write relatable heroes. If I missed any glaring ones, feel free to tell me about them in the comments. I concede heroes aren’t actually my best things (something I imagine will make itself plain in the villain article, coming soon to a computer screen near you).

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Happily Ever After? The Storybook Cliche vs. The Well-told Story

Back in 630 (or so) B. C. when the ancient Greeks were, in fact, contemporary Greeks, there lived a man named Aesop who became the go-to guy for cautionary tales.

From that day to this, wee children have grown up learning life lessons on morality, like “slow and steady wins the race” and “it is easier to bend than to break,” in conjunction with the fables to which Mr. Aesop paired them.

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While Aesop’s fables are useful teaching tools, they are less entertaining than the tales told by unscrupulous story tellers whose primary concern is to entertain, not to educate.

There are exceptions to be sure, but when we start with a moral and work backward, the narrative generally feels forced. Our characters stop being friends with whom we go on adventures to unexplored lands, and they become tools with which we frame our preconceived moral and the tale we’ve written to solely to highlight it.

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This past week, in mulling over the differences between cautionary tales and the tales told purely for entertainment’s sake, I came to an astonishing conclusion:

Here in America, “Happily ever after” has replaced the Aesop-style moral as the obligatory end of our stories, especially in genres like romance, kids,’ and action adventure.

A sociologist could better unpack the cultural impact of excluding endings other than “happy” from our narratives, but here are my main gripes with this course of action:

It hurts the reader / listener of the story, when it sets up unrealistic expectations in art and life, if that’s the only kind of story he or she ever hears.

It hurts the teller of the story, when his characters become limited in their ability to wander around and end up somewhere interesting, because “happily ever after” is a foregone conclusion. On top of that, whatever stakes the storyteller hoped to establish early on in order to make the audience care about his characters automatically go down, if there’s no chance the hero can fail in his quest.

Now, I’m not a nihilist (at least not when it comes to storytelling). If I was, I’d go all hyperbole on this topic as a metaphor for life, like that kid from high school with the Anarchy T and the dog collars.

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(I can say this thing in self-mockery. I too am something of a goth kid)

And yes, it’s true that all stories end just like all lives end, but there’s no consistent way in which we die / end our story. If we could see it coming a mile away, wouldn’t most if us view it as a corny, awful cliche and take steps either to hasten or avoid it?

On entertainment platforms elsewhere on the web, they grieve the tendency of Marvel movies to deny the audience closure by faithfully ending each movie with a teaser for the next movie.

But that might be the most realistic thing about the whole damn Avengers franchise! How often in our lives do we get our wrongs righted, questions answered, and much-needed assurance that we will make it? Generally, we can get 2-3 of our biggest looming disasters under control just as another, bigger one pops up on the horizon.

I realize this is not a universal problem people have with their stories. This is merely my struggle to embrace “happily ever after” as the way stories should, with out exception, end. So feel free to take anything I have to say on the subject with between 1 and 40 grains of salt. But it’s a problem with which I’ve wrestled for a fine, long time. In school, I was fascinated with biographies because there are so many absurd circumstances in which humans regularly find themselves, and they don’t always have sad or even satisfactory endings. We just wrap them up where ever we can.

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I also I’d rather the pendulum did not swing the other way and bring us nought but writers who crank out tragedy after tragedy. I love my Hamlets and my Deaths of a Salesmen as much as the next guy, but a steady diet of that would turn us all into sulky poets with true-and-sincere death wishes. I just think we’re cheating ourselves out of some powerful storytelling, if we constrain ourselves as writers to happy endings and nothing else.

For amazing examples of stories that end on a note that is simultaneously happy, sad, and hopeful, here are some favorites of mine:

Casablanca, The Imaginerium of Doctor Parnassus, The Last Unicorn, The Blues Brothers, Hocus Pocus, The Accountant, Metropolis, Little Miss Sunshine, The Spirit, and Porco Rosso.

Yes, I know, it’s a movie list, not a book list, and some of these movies have been declared terrible by experts, but as a child, it was “happily ever after” movies that messed me way-the-hell up, not books. Novels and plays were – and still are – a pretty solid refuge for satisfying, if not happy endings (see To Kill A Mocking Bird, Great Expectations, The Hiding Place, Where the Red Fern Grows, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Summer of the Swans, and The Great Gilly Hopkins for a bittersweet taste of my childhood reading experiences).

So to any authors out there who generate these kinds of satisfying, not-necessarily-happy endings in fiction, keep it up. I promise there’s an audience for it. If anyone has ever led you to believe differently, bear in mind, the editor who eventually took on Moby Dick unironically petitioned Melville to make Captain Ahab obsessed with a woman, not a whale.

I’m pretty sure that’s all I got for you today. Persevere, and write on, y’all!

Diversity as it relates to Peace, War, and Dumbledore

Dumble-Back-Dore

When well-intending authors want to include diversity in their fictional works, a variety of questions tend to go through their heads, like…

-Am I a poser, if I’m a pale person who wants to include Arabian knights in my fantasy story?

   -If I’m a person of color, non-cisgender, or ability impairment, do I have to write a book about pale, able-bodied, straight people in order to conform to genre norms?
  -Am I required to have diversity in my book, and if so, is there a minimum / maximum amount?
The answer to all these questions is a resounding “No” and maybe even a “Hell no!” in the case of minimums to meet.
*Hint: If you are only interested in writing diversity to meet an arbitrary quota for the selling of more books, please don’t bother.
Yet, the topic of diversity turns authors with hither-to healthy egos into nervous nuts for fear they might do it wrong and offend someone.

While the unfortunate plight of the timid diversity writer is not J. K. Rowling’s fault, she did give us a glaring example of how to do it wrong. Behold, the handling of her hitherto beloved character, Albus Dumbledore:

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After Rowling revealed this informational tidbit that was in no way backed up by her books, Albus Dumbledore became to diversity in fiction what the Vietnam Conflict was to America’s reputation abroad: a years-long quagmire with no satisfying end that serves as naught but a cautionary tale to future generations.

“Are are sure you want to write diversity, Nervous Writer Person? We don’t want another Dumbledore on our hands” sounds suspiciously like what congress says every time shit goes down overseas:

“Are we sure we want to take a stand on this? We don’t want another Vietnam on our hands.”

At this point, I think most of us agree diversity in fiction is a good thing. What’s a little less clear is how to achieve it without pandering, stereotyping, or making our book an object of outrage.

There’s no one set of rules to keep from upsetting folks with our books, but here are some guidelines on which most book-lovers seem to agree:

   1. Don’t award your characters posthumous attributes. Once your work is published, it is too late to change them, and they are dead in the sense that Latin is dead. For those who once wrote it every day, the ink is dry, and the pen is lifted. It’s real hard to go back in time and change it to something the author likes better now.
   2. Be respectful. Some stories, particularly very old ones written in an age with no internet and fewer fact-checking resources, show lack of cultural understanding but not in ways that are – as they say – “problematic.” For instance,  “The Nightingale” by Hans Christian Andersen prominently features the emperors of China and Japan interacting in ways they would not have in those days. Yet, Andersen’s handling of the subject matter is less like that of a flagrant culture appropriator and more like one who is spellbound by a far-off, exotic land. In contrast, H. P. Lovecraft used diversity in his fiction only to highlight his own bigoted, classist feelings that color / poverty / mixing of race = bad. Today, few diversity fans want to pick up Call of Cthulhu except to throw it at somebody, but “The Nightingale” is still a great little fairy tale illustrating the power of friendship and the danger peer pressure. This leads me to believe if we write of a culture as one looking at it through loving eyes, readers will be more inclined to give us the benefit of the doubt if we make a mistake somewhere.
   3. You can write anything you want. All people have their preferences, and they might not like your take on cultural themes, but that doesn’t mean you cannot write them. Which brings us to…
   4. You can’t please everyone. Let’s face it, you were never going to please everyone with any one book. There are, believe it or not, folks out there who don’t like Harry Potter, The Hate You Give, The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, to Kill a Mockingbird, The Sword in the Stone, Flowers for Algernon, and Huckleberry Finn. You don’t have to agree with those people. You don’t have to marry those people. But they have a right to their opinions, and if they hate your book as well… I mean, at least you evoked some strong feelings, right?
   5. Don’t half-heartedly embrace diversity in order to sell more books. Each of your characters should add to your story, or they don’t belong there. If you stick one or two persons of color, disability, or what-have-you into the mix, and they don’t make your story better for their presence, that is pandering, and your readers will know it.
   6. Research / Think things through as you write. We do not live in an era of isolation. Contrary to what some might think, the internet is at our disposal for more than games, porn, and the wasting of time. If you’re in love with a culture that’s different from your own, snoop around on Google for a while, and see what all you can learn about it. Failing that, read books. Watch documentaries. Figure out how to write a believable character from that marginalized culture you revere. Or if you’re writing fantasy, flesh out the culture of that different-looking character and how his culture has shaped him. How does he interact with the locals in lands where-in he’s a stranger? What makes his perspective unique among your cast of characters? Is his race that of proud, fierce warriors or sneaky, smooth-talking manipulators?

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(there might be better examples out there than the Clingon and the Ferengi from Star Trek, but it would take some concentration and a better attention span than I possess to think of them)

So that’s my glancing blow at how to navigate the pitfalls of writing diverse characters. If you disagree, good deal! I’m overjoyed me seriously enough to read and take issue with my stuff.

Until next time, happy-and-prosperous writing, y’all. May the Lord smite us with money 😉