My 100 Book Year: Stats and Reflections

Screenshot 2016-01-01 at 13.42.36In 2014, I set a goal of 50 books for the year, and managed 34.  When discussing our reading goals for the following year, I set it at 100, because I am clearly insane.  I trailed behind pace for most of the year, but with a massive push to the end and helped by a bunch of middle grade and the fact that paperbacks of collected comics are 1) listed as books on Goodreads and 2) available at my library, I hit the goal.

So am I gonna do it again next year?  Hell no.  I’m setting a more reasonable goal of 60 for 2016.  A pace of a book every 3-4 days is certainly doable… if you’re reading consistently all year.  But I tend to go in fits and spurts and books that required close reading (like Perdido Street Station), that were a slog to get through (like Strangers on a Train), or were simply longer than I anticipated (like Winter) further threw me off.  And I wasn’t just reading short books, I was eschewing several long books that I wanted to read but knew I couldn’t fit into my schedule.  (Someday, Seveneves.)  Plus, while it’s certainly possible for me to read most books in a single sitting these days, the practical effect of staying up well past midnight for several nights running is not pretty, especially when one’s first alarm goes off at 5am.  The balls-out pace was certainly fun just to say that I did it, and even factoring in all the short books I still read significantly more words and pages than I had done for a long time, but I don’t see a need for a repeat performance.

Now, out of curiosity, I decided to break down the demographics of the stuff I read this year.  I’ve professed in the past my support of the We Need Diverse Books movement, so I figured I’d take a look and see how my actual reading shapes up.

Spoiler alert: It’s not pretty.

The 100 books I read came from 55 writers (and 11 comic artists).  When I went through the demographic groups, here’s what I found:

Women: 30 writers, 5 artists

Gender non-binary: 1 writer

People of color: 5 writers, 6 artists

Women of color: 4 writers, 2 artists

LGBT+: 7 writers

LGBT people of color: 1 (Hi, Malinda Lo!)

Disabled: Big fat 0

Repeat authors: 7 women, 8 men

Repeat LGBT+ authors: 1

Repeat authors of color: 0


(I should slap a big fat disclaimer that I gathered most of the demographic data from quick scans of Wikipedia pages and Twitter and Goodreads bios, so it’s entirely possible that I’ve miscategorized people who, say, are light-skinned but don’t identify as white, or who don’t have their sexual/gender identities thusly listed.  Hell, my 1 repeat queer author, Victoria Schwab, is someone I only know of as bisexual because I follow her on Twitter.  So it’s possible that my numbers might not be quite as dire as I think.  But they’re still pretty bad.)

I’m clearly doing okay with female authors, which doesn’t surprise me much given my preference for YA, fantasy, and female-driven comic properties like Ms. Marvel and Lumberjanes.  But on other fronts?  I’ve been talking the talk, but clearly not walking the walk.

So whether I end up reading 60 books, many fewer, or many more, I’m making the commitment that at least half of the books I read will be from authors in these underrepresented categories.  It’s not like I don’t have tons of them on my TBR list, especially since I started seeking out recommendations for them, so now I just need to actually make a point of reading them.  This doesn’t mean that I’m rejecting authors from majority groups, more that I need to consciously seek a balance, paying attention to the voices that I’m absorbing and amplifying.  Awareness of the issue is good.  Doing something about it is better.

First Comes Query, Then Comes Draft?

First Comes Query, Then Comes Draft?

I think I’m starting to sniff around my concept for this year’s NaNoWriMo.  It started with the kind of question you ask yourself after reading the same trope for the fourth time in a row, then became something I thought I might be able to explore.  Once it started looking like it would be A Thing, I opened up a document to start tracking my thoughts.

This document isn’t in with my manuscript drafts.  It’s not with my character worksheets, my outlines, or my random research snippets.  It’s in my queries.

It sounds kind of crazy, right?  The query (or blurb/back cover copy if you’re self-publishing or already agented) is something you’re not worrying about until you’ve gone through several rounds of drafts and revisions.  Certainly, it is the highest of high crimes to send out a query for something that’s not fully complete and polished; sending out one for something that hasn’t even been started would probably have an agent checking to see if she’s developed the power to light you on fire with her mind.

We’re not talking about sending the query, though.  Just writing it.  And it’s something I’ve found to be tremendously helpful.  Really, it’s just another approach to outlining, and one that’s quite appealing to me as an inveterate pantser.

I first started doing this a couple of years ago, when I had finished as much plotting and planning as I could stand with a few days to go before the November 1st starting bell.  By that time, I had just recently completed my dive through the glory and majesty that is Query Shark, so I naturally started applying those lessons toward my own story and took a crack at it.  That first draft had too much introductory cruft and the villain’s plan at that point was something something fate of the world, but it wasn’t that far from what I sent out to agents a year later (after revising to reflect the finished product, of course).  Not only that, but it actually provided me with some rather illuminating details; the heroine’s relationship with gaming turned out to be a huge and integral part of her character, and it came from a quip about being “a first-person shooter kind of girl” that I found amusing.

So, what does this have to do with outlining?  After all, a query absolutely should not tell you the entire story, just enough to tease and get someone wanting to read the whole thing.  It does this by establishing three things:

Hero – Problem – Stakes

Essentially, we’re told who the main character is, what choice or dilemma they face, and what they risk to lose by failing or choosing a certain way.  I’m basically just regurgitating Her Sharkness here (seriously, if you haven’t read the Query Shark archives, DO IT NOW), but I’ve heard again and again from multiple agents, editors, and other publishing types that these are the key elements of a good query.

I help people polish up their queries through various communities and forums, and one reason that a lot of people struggle to get these three elements into the query is that they’re not in the book.  Their main character isn’t well-defined.  They don’t have a clear goal or desire.  There’s nothing important standing in their way.  There’s nothing really on the line to give us reason to fear their failure.  But authors frequently don’t recognize these problems in the manuscript until they try to articulate them in the query.

Replace "Phase" with "Act" and you've got most of my outlines.

Pictured: Something I’ve actually done in outlining.

Figuring out these essential elements at the start helps ensure that they’re clearly defined and baked into the whole manuscript, so you’re not trying to clean it all up later.  You’re not committed to what you decide at the outset, and you get to leave yourself a great deal of wiggle room for how it will all play out (which is what I love as someone whose outlines tend to be on the Underpants Gnomes side of the spectrum), but you have some guideposts to keep yourself on track.

Trying to answer these questions early on lets you know where your concept is weakest while you’re still planning, so you can focus your research and development more efficiently.  For instance, in the one I’m working on now, I know that I’m pretty solid on the hook and the hero, but less clear on motivations, goals, and setting.  So as I gear up in the next couple of months to flesh things out, that’s where I know to concentrate.   Plus, I generally find it’s easier to toss something into the query that sounds cool and try to work it into, rather than trying to come up with an elegant, concise, and pithy way to describe a finished work.  It’s basically like giving yourself a writing prompt.

Maybe I’m just that weird kid who actually likes writing queries.  But this isn’t some magic ability that comes out of nowhere.  It’s a skill you can acquire and hone.  And if you’re like me, trying it at a different point in your writing process could make a big difference.

On Moving to the Shelf

On Moving to the Shelf

Well, here we are.  I’ve just sent off the last query letter for Ignition.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean I’m withdrawing the project, or that I’m scraping the bottom of the vodka bottle.  (That might not be the right idiom.)  The order of my list was more about when I found an agent than how much I want to work with them, and I am still hopeful that one of the responses I haven’t gotten yet will be an enthusiastic “Yes!”

But, you know, I’m a realist.  I’ve been patiently putting this thing through its paces–querying, pitching, and entering contests–for over a year now.  I’ve gotten enough interest along the way to assure me that what I’ve got to offer isn’t a hot mess, but I’m starting to realize that it is a bit of an odd duck.  Not quite YA, not quite NA.  Certainly not played straight, but not quite a satire.  Part of the appeal for me is seeing how the science-minded main character reacts to a somewhat standard fantasy plot, but that still leaves me pitching a somewhat standard fantasy plot.  Perhaps it’s just a crowded market, or perhaps it’s that something slightly weird and hard to classify is an easier sell from an established author than a debut, but it’s becoming pretty clear that it might not be the right time for this one, and there’s no further effort I can put forth that will make it the right time.

I’d love to be proven wrong, to hear from just the right agent that they know just the right editor to make this thing happen.  I still love this book and am tremendously proud of it, and I still haven’t found a character quite like Lacey, with her complex relationship with femininity and her cheerful vulgarity, on the market.  More than anything, I believe in this book.

But time, energy, and brainspace are all limited resources, and I need to make sure I’m using them most productively.  The thing you’re supposed to do while waiting on the interminable publishing cycles is to write the next book, but I’ve been stalled out in that.  I’ve always struggled to keep multiple active books in my head, and it’s clear that I need to kick this one out to make my way forward.  I’m starting to sniff out a new story that’s more high-concept, with unique selling points that are easier to describe, and I need to give it room to breathe.

And hey, if all goes well with a new one and it hooks me an agent who asks what else I’ve got, I’ll have a pleasant surprise for them.

Why Everyone is Wrong about Claire Dearing’s High Heels

Why Everyone is Wrong about Claire Dearing’s High Heels

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Jurassic World.)

For a cynical bitch, I am quite a sentimental sot.

15 - 1 (2)These are the shoes I wore for my wedding.  I don’t normally wear heels, but the height was necessary to avoid expensive alterations of the dress.  They’ve lived in the closet since then, but for our fifth anniversary bash in Las Vegas, I thought it might be nice to break them out.

Our plan was to walk from our room at the Bellagio to the Mirage for dinner, then to the High Roller at the Linq and back to the hotel for our Cirque du Soleil tickets.  It’s a distance of about two miles all told.  No big deal, right?

I collapsed into our table at Carnegie Deli in excruciating pain.  We ended up taking a cab to the Ferris wheel, and would have done again to get back to the Bellagio except by the time we got back to the Strip to hail a cab we realized we were right there, so I tottered painfully across the pedestrian bridges until we reached the sanctuary of the hotel.  Yes, I was that girl walking through the casino with high heels in hand, except I was doing it at 9pm, because that’s how long I lasted.  The lovely blister I earned for my troubles covered most of the ball of my right foot.

So going into Jurassic World, I could kind of get why everyone was making such a big deal about the fact that Bryce Dallas Howard’s theme park executive Claire Dearing spends the entire movie in a grossly impractical pair of stilettos.  Many have bemoaned the fact that she doesn’t ditch the shoes when danger arises.  (Because running through a jungle barefoot is safer, apparently?)  It’s just unrealistic for an operations manager to be wearing those sorts of shoes at all, let alone doing what she does in them, right?

Well, tell that to the actress who did it all for real, across multiple takes.  The damn shoes are pretty much the only thing in the movie that isn’t CGI.  Far from judging her, I was in awe of someone who could dominate Isla Nublar in shoes I couldn’t even walk normally in.  I can attest to the sheer physical intensity of what she’s doing and can say unequivocally that she is by far the toughest person there.

What everyone, both the critics and her fellow characters, seems to be missing is that Claire doesn’t need to take off the shoes.  Everyone assumes that the shoes will be a liability, just like everyone assumes that she doesn’t know how to run her park or that she’ll eventually come around to wanting motherhood.  But the glorious thing about the movie is that everyone is completely wrong on all of those counts, and the frustrating thing about the movie is that this is never quite acknowledged within the text.  It seems like Claire’s arc is less about her own growth than about forcing those who’ve belittled her to take her seriously, but it doesn’t actually pay off.  I mean, Owen (Chris Pratt) reacts to her competently and efficiently saving his life by kissing her, rather than, say, thanking her.  (In a testament to the generally solid acting on display, Owen does seem to treat Claire a bit more as an equal after that point, a performance choice too understated to come across in a movie that is Sharknado levels of unsubtle.)  His gobsmacked expression as she lures a T. Rex into battle–thereby decisively accomplishing what he could barely convince his raptors to do–is satisfying, but that character development really needed a better coda than his lame line at the end.

One of my favorite moments is when Owen stops and reaches back for Claire to help her down some steps, since going down stairs is one of the most difficult parts of walking in heels, and she bolts right past him without hesitation.  His action shows that his heart is in the right place, but hers shows just how thoroughly he’s underestimated her.  From the second she steps on screen, Claire is fighting dinosaurs while effortlessly rocking a pair of heels.  It really shouldn’t be surprising that she’s just as comfortable when the dinosaurs of gender politics get swapped for the scales-and-teeth kind.

An Evening with Chuck Palahniuk

An Evening with Chuck Palahniuk

Rainy Day Books, a local indie bookstore (whom you might have heard about when they got plugged by Stephen Colbert) puts on phenomenal author events.  Seriously, I’ve been to more talks and signings since moving to Kansas City than I did the whole time I was living in Los Angeles.  On Friday night, they hosted Chuck Palahniuk (he of Fight Club fame) at the Uptown.

When we picked up our tickets, we were given our goodie bags: they had the promised copies of Fight Club 2 Issue #1 and Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread, conveniently pre-autographed.  But there was also a pair of glow sticks and a strange white package…


This turned out to be a beach ball, which we were instructed to inflate, insert the glow sticks into, and inscribe with our names.  And that’s when I knew we were in for a good time.

It was, put simply, one of the most delightfully insane nights it has ever been my pleasure to experience.  The glowing beach balls were a scheme where the auditorium was turned into a giant colorful bingo cage, and certain people whose balls made it up to the front were given handsome prizes.  (I would have done unspeakable things for the leather-bound signed first edition of Fight Club.  Like, I wouldn’t have been able to quite meet your eyes afterward, but it would totally have been worth it.)  Bags of candy were hucked into the audience–not individual pieces, but the entire bags.  An ambulance arrived for someone who passed out during the reading of “Guts”.  He brought gifts for random people’s pets.  We sang along to “The Star-Spangled Banner”.  At the end of the night, dozens and dozens of dismembered hands–grisly foam props, realistically detailed and each one autographed–were thrown to the rapturous crowd.



Now make no mistake, the night also had the trappings you expect of an author event.  “Guts” was flanked by “The Facts of Life” and “Zombies”, and the audience was by turns rolling with laughter and struck dumb with horror.  He took questions from the audience and delivered thoughtful answers about following your passions, forcing a visceral connection with the story, and being honest with your work.  And he gamely attempted to get through the massive line of people wanting to take pictures with him pre-show.  (Pictures in which each fan had to wear bunny ears, because reasons.)

But it definitely made me rethink what these sorts of promotional events can be.  Granted, it certainly helps to have a massive backlist, loads of critical acclaim, and a sizable crowd of enthusiastic and devoted fans.  And I wouldn’t want to steal ideas wholesale, especially given that the atmosphere of anarchy and a hint of violence (my neighbor took a bag of Hershey Nuggets to the shoulder) seems to be rather uniquely suited to Palahniuk.  But still, I think there are general takeaways that can be applied.  Rather than doing one topic at a time, the night bounced rapidly around between Q&A, neon beach ball raves, readings, and high fructose projectiles; breaking things up kept the energy high and the audience engaged.  Everyone walked away with something extra, even if it was just a bit of candy or a beach ball with someone else’s name on it.  And best of all, there was the sense that he was there to do something special for his fans, beyond just gracing us with his presence.

“Author event” is a kind of generic term, but this really felt like an Event.  It was something riotous and unique and far more memorable than all the other polite, congenial interviews and autograph sessions.  It’s the sort of thing I think more authors should aspire to.

ConQuesT 46: Thoughts and Observations

On Friday and Saturday, I attended ConQuesT 46, a long-running local Kansas City convention that I heard about for the first time this year, despite having lived in the area for going on four years now.  (Advertising in the Planet Comicon program was a good move.)  I’ve only really attended big industry cons in the past; hell, SDCC was my first one, which is kind of saying something.  So this is probably the most intimate con I’ve ever attended, which I dug.

A few thoughts:

  • The programming was really densely packed.  The schedule was organized in hour-long chunks, and each panel ran pretty much from the top of the hour to the bottom.  But this leaves no time at all between panels, and that’s a real problem.  People were coming and going constantly during the panels, which could get really distracting (especially when panelists were running late).  One panel going over in a situation like that has a cascading effect that messes with everything else after it.  Most of the panels were on the same floor, but not all, and the elevator situation was kind of a mess.  There was very little chance to grab water or take a bathroom break if you didn’t want to miss your programming.  And honestly, spending six straight hours in panel discussions is draining as hell even when the panels are all great.  If they’re going to stick to a block schedule, I’d have preferred to see the panels limited to 50-55 minutes rather than going the whole 60.  Speaking of which…
  • Moderation was kind of hit and miss.  Some mods were great at keeping things on track and keeping any one panelist from dominating discussion, but for the most part (especially on my Friday panels), things had a tendency to wander.  Stronger moderation might have also prevented a couple of unfortunate situations where a random dude in the crowd basically decided that he was on the panel, including talking over the designated panelists.  Perhaps some sort of survey system would help the organizers identify who their best moderators are and leverage that information in the future.
  • I attended eleven panels over the course of the two days, and every single one was mixed gender!  Gender representation on panels is a well-documented problem in the industry, and it seemed like the organizers made a conscious decision to combat that.  There was also a clear harassment policy and a phone number for reporting that was listed on the back of every badge.  These don’t seem like huge steps, but they’re very important components of making a convention feel safe and welcoming, and the folks in charge deserve recognition and commendation.
  • Other kinds of representation, on the other hand…  I was really glad that there was a black dude on my final panel, because room after room with just white people was getting a bit awkward.  That might be a function of it being a smaller con in the Midwest, so to a certain extent they have to work with who they can get.  Still, I’d love to see more development and outreach in that area.
  • I was really surprised by the hospitality on offer.  As I mentioned, I’d never been to a hotel con, so it wasn’t until opening ceremonies the first evening that I heard about the Consuite, a giant room with couches and free food.  My husband had opted not to attend, but said he might have changed his mind had he known about the room parties (which weren’t mentioned on the website).  I ended up spending quite a bit of time chilling in Consuite on Saturday when I needed a breather or a sandwich.  Definitely a perk of attending a smaller event; no way something like that would be possible for attendees at SDCC.
  • Story in a Bag was great!  At a convention largely based on writing, it’s nice to have an opportunity to, you know, write.  I may be a little biased toward it, since my story, Model Operative, was one of the winners in the sci-fi amateur division.  Also, immense gratitude to the Lawrence NaNoWriMo contingent who brought a printer and kindly let me use it, because no one would have been able to read my atrocious handwriting.

Overall, it was a lot of fun.  I took loads of notes at the panels and got some good ideas I’m looking forward to applying.  I’m definitely planning on going back next year.  (Which, given that KC is getting Worldcon and I’m very likely going to New York Comic Con, is going to be a pretty busy year…)

#AtoZChallenge Wrap-Up: An Actually Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

A-to-Z+Reflection+[2015]+-+LgSo, we’ve survived the A-to-Z Challenge!  This was my first year, and I managed to pull off the whole thing more or less on time, with only one slight cheat to the schedule (taking a break day on a Friday instead of the Sunday).  I found some interesting new blogs, picked up some Twitter followers, saw a huge jump in site traffic, and have a couple dozen essays I didn’t have before.

So it was a pretty good first year.  It’s also going to be my last year.

This is not an indictment on the challenge itself.  It’s a great idea and a great community, and definitely something worth trying.  This is a solid case of, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

For one thing, my posts are long.  I deal in analysis, which means cited examples and explanations.  I almost choked when I saw that posts for the challenge should be 100-300 words.  I mean, that’s barely an introduction!  My posts averaged about 700 words or so, and I clocked in just over 18,000 words of posts for the month.  That is a lot of words.  The process of writing a post–figuring out what my point actually is, sourcing all the links, putting together images, etc.–takes an hour or two, and that’s not counting revisiting the source material if I hadn’t watched it recently.

There’s also the fact that April is kinda busy for me.  Of 30 days in the month, I was traveling for 10 of them.  So getting ready for the trips and actually being on the trips demanded a lot of my time and attention.  I had fully intended to spend my downtime on vacation reading, because I have a ridiculous Goodreads goal for the year and I’m 7 books behind schedule, but I barely got any in because I was spending so much time on blog stuff.

The shit is this?

The shit is this?

And that’s just on my own blog.  Visiting other blogs?  Forget it.  I was pretty good about it for the first week, but once vacation prep kicked in there was just no time.  I mean, I can barely keep up with my own stuff as it is.  My Feedly backlog is so huge that the unread counter has stopped talking to me.  That’s not a joke.  I did add a few new blogs to my Feedly for the challenge, but they’re a small percentage of the (presumed) total.

As for leaving comments, it’s just not my thing.  For one, I only comment if I feel like I have something substantive and original to add to the conversation.  Part of why I consume this stuff through RSS is that that need is a very rare occurrence.  For another, I’ve never gotten the hang of following an actual conversation on a blog post.  You can subscribe to comments, but that ends up with a whole lot of spam on popular posts to see if someone has responded to me (which they usually don’t).  I much prefer something like G+ or a forum where I can see all the relevant updates in one place and it can feel like an actual conversation.  And I’ve been around the internet long enough that the lesson of “Don’t read the comments.  Ever.  Seriously, just don’t read the comments.  Why did you read the comments?  What did I just say?” is pretty deeply rooted in my brain.

I think what I’ve learned from this experience is that I’m not actually a blogger.  This thing exists so that there’s something resembling content on this site, and so I can do something with the observations and theses my media studies brain can’t help producing.  Perhaps I do need to keep to a stricter schedule, but daily is right the hell out.  Balancing my time between myriad projects is a continual struggle for me, and this challenge created a massive time sink that I couldn’t afford.

I don’t regret participating, necessarily.  I’m proud of what I accomplished this month.  But if anyone ever suggests that I sign up for another blogging challenge, my response is going to be, “Hahaha, no.”

Z is for Zap: Lightning-Fast Character Introductions in Guardians of the Galaxy

Z is for Zap: Lightning-Fast Character Introductions in Guardians of the Galaxy

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Guardians of the Galaxy.)

ZThis is probably the biggest stretch of any of my letters, but shut up, it’s the end of the month.  Anyway, we all know that beginnings are hard.  You have to very quickly orient your audience in your new world and get them rooting for the right characters, and you have to do it in a way that feels natural while making the whole thing interesting enough to keep people hooked.  We’ve already looked at a couple of examples of this balance that were less than great, so let’s go for one that does it really well.

I’m not the first person to express admiration for the opening credits of Guardians of the Galaxy, and I’m probably not going to be the last, but really, it’s glorious.  After the gut-crushing cold open, we see the adult Peter landing on a dead planet.  He takes off his imposing mask, slips on some headphones, and starts grooving.  Right away, it establishes the tone of the movie, alternating between grandiose and goofy.  But more importantly, it establishes the character of adult Peter within seconds.  By the time that title card appears, with Peter dancing his heart out underneath it, you know who this guy is: he’s a space pirate with a shameless sense of fun.  There’s a little more to him than that, but you’re already on board after that opening.  (Cleverly, there’s actually plot being foreshadowed with this sequence too, since Peter dancing to his mix tape winds up being a surprisingly crucial part of the climax.)

Star-Lord’s intro gets the most attention, but they do it with others, too.  Let’s look at Rocket and Groot’s intro on Xandar.  It’s no accident that it starts with Rocket’s voiceover; a talking raccoon gets dangerously into kiddie movie cute animal territory, which was one of the big reasons people were so skeptical about this movie’s chances for success.  But you get the sarcastic, misanthropic running commentary first, before you see that it’s coming from a tiny fuzzy guy.  It cuts off any preconceptions toward cuteness before they can take root.  Meanwhile, Groot is playing adorably in the fountain, and pouts when Rocket yells at him.

It’s not just the heroes getting this treatment, either.  Ronan’s first appearance shows him ritualistically preparing to brutally murder a member of the Nova Corps.  He doesn’t actually get a lot of screentime in the movie; his presence is more felt by the other characters’ fear of him, and of what he could do with the Orb.  But that’s not quite enough to make the audience feel that same fear, hence he gets a more… impactful introduction.  (I would apologize for that pun, but nope, not gonna.)

Even if you’re writing a more plot-driven story, it’s still characters that people connect to, and so their introductions should be handled carefully.  What’s the most important thing that we need to know about them right off the bat?  Where is their character arc going to end up, and what’s an effective way to contrast that?  What kind of impression do you want this character to make?  Answering these questions can help you craft an electrifying and memorable opening that lets the audience dive right in.

Y is for Yoga: Star Trek and the Uncomfortably Twisted Plot

Y is for Yoga: Star Trek and the Uncomfortably Twisted Plot

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Star Trek (2009).  Page image is TNG, but I’m using it because holy shit, “star trek yoga” actually gave me an image result.  Wasn’t expecting that.)

YOkay, I’ll admit, using “yoga” to describe this concept is a bit of a stretch, twisting what I have (an idea for a blog post) into the not-necessarily compatible position that I need it to be in (a tricky letter in this alphabet challenge).  But that makes it quite a perfect metaphor for the topic at hand, really.  The trope of the day is Contrived Coincidence.  You all know this one: the plot gets stuck in a corner, and some outlandish, utterly improbable occurrence comes along to get it moving again.  This is mostly an acceptable break from reality as long as it’s not too egregious.  After all, insane coincidences happen in real life all the time, and depending on the tone of the story, the audience is frequently willing to just go along with it to keep things moving.  Hell, sometimes it gets explained by there being some force within the story that’s manipulating events to its liking (instead of it just being, you know, the author doing exactly that).

Still, it’s kind of a lazy technique, frequently the mark of a writer with two preconceived story points and no reasonable way to connect them who just said “Fuck it” and moved on.  It’s laid out in one of Pixar’s rules of storytelling: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”  Once you get past a certain point in the story, the audience wants things to connect, to pay off the setups and tie everything together.

The Star Trek reboot is a prime example of cheating coincidences.  Of course having every leadership position on the ship vacated just in time for the familiar characters to step in is a bit of a stretch, but it pales in comparison to what happens after Vulcan gets ‘sploded.  Spock dumps Kirk on the nearest planet, where he almost immediately finds… Spock Prime!  And naturally, the elder Spock has information to impart that’s critical for moving the plot forward.  Naturally.

I know, dude. I can't believe it either.

I know, dude. I can’t believe it either.

That would already be a pretty staggering example, but it gets worse!  Because only a few miles away from the Ice Cave of Destiny, there’s a Federation outpost, staffed by none other than Scotty.  The fact that it’s Scotty is not that huge a stretch; this is an origin story after all, so he’s not a main character at this point, just a random dude.  The fact that said random dude has just invented exactly the technology that Kirk needs to get back onto the Enterprise?  Less forgivable.

The worst part of all is that there’s no explanation.  This goes back to what we discussed earlier this month about lampshade hanging: when you’re giving suspension of disbelief that rough a buggering, there desperately needs to be some sort of acknowledgment to keep it from breaking entirely.  In this case, you could have had Kirk dropped off actually at the Federation outpost, or have Spock somehow mention that he’s purposefully dropping him not too far away, which solves one Scotty conundrum.  As for the transwarp beaming, perhaps a throwaway line earlier in the movie about some dude who was working on that technology would have softened that blow.  And with Spock Prime, well, any way you slice it, that’s still going to be one hell of a coincidence.  But having it piled atop the other whoppers pushes things from “That’s rather unlikely” to “Look, if you’re not going to take this seriously…

Willing suspension of disbelief relies on trust.  It’s the writer being able to credibly say, “Yes, I know what I’m doing.  This is going somewhere worthwhile.  Just stay with me and we’ll have a good time.”  But leaning too heavily on something like coincidence jeopardizes that trust.  Like an inexperienced yoga practitioner attempting a pose that’s way beyond their level, the whole thing is unstable and likely to fall over if you look at it funny.  The foundation of a good story is a logical progression of events (even if that logic isn’t readily apparent the whole time).  Life can rely on coincidence sometimes, but as a writer, you should probably think twice.

X is for Xerox: When Copying Isn’t Quite Copying

X is for Xerox: When Copying Isn’t Quite Copying

X(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Book of MormonWickedThe Lion King, and The Music Man.)

We got the soundtrack for The Book of Mormon pretty much as soon as it was released, and I was utterly engrossed.  But one thing bothered me quite a bit.  The song “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”…

…sounded awfully familiar.

It kind of stuck in my craw.  The rest of the songs are great, so why rip off something contemporary and distinctive?  But the more I listened, the more I realized that it’s supposed to sound like Wicked, because they do the same thing throughout the show.

The thing is, it’s not a straight copy so much as a quote.  The difference is that they’re doing something with it, using the musical similarity to make a distinction.  With this and with the other similar songs, they’re using the same familiar music to accompany a polar opposite situation.

Let’s look at this pairing to start.  “Defying Gravity” sees both Glinda and Elphaba realizing that while they’re choosing to walk different paths, they’re still joined together as friends and equals.  However, in “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” Elders Price and Cunningham are acknowledging that they’re being forced onto the same path, but they’re not so much with the friends and equals.

It goes on like this.  The Ugandans’ song “Hasa Diga Eebowai”…

…actually references its doppelganger:

In the latter, Simba has left his home in terror and shame, only to discover that his fate isn’t nearly as unpleasant as he feared.  In the former, the missionaries leave their home in triumphant expectation, only to discover that their situation is far worse than they could have imagined.

One more! “All-American Prophet” kicks it old-school:

Harold Hill doesn’t remotely believe the things he’s saying, but the townsfolk are all over it.  Kevin Price believes what he’s saying body and soul, but the townsfolk are decidedly unimpressed.

Sure, the writers could still establish the story beats on their own.  But by invoking these familiar standbys, they subtly set up audience expectations, which can then be subverted to add another layer to the joke.  There’s an old saying about knowing your audience, but it’s not just about what they’re likely to find funny or offensive or what have you.  If you have a good idea of the works your audience is familiar with (someone who sees one musical has probably seen others, for instance), you can use that knowledge as a sort of springboard to let you build something new.

The important thing is to make it new, mind.  Just pointing to something familiar and saying, “Hey, here’s a thing you should recognize!” isn’t going to get you many points.  But if you can provide a twist to it, that’s when you’ve got something special.