Stranger Things: Mini-Review (No Spoilers!)

stranger things

HORROR FOR A NON-HORROR FAN

I just finished watching Season 1 of Stranger Things (ST) and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  I was afraid that the series wasn’t going to live up to the hype set up by online fans of the show.  However, after watching all eight episodes, I have to say that I really did come to enjoy it.  It started a bit slowly for me (Episodes 1-3), but the middle episodes (4-6) really ratcheted up the tension and while the resolution was good (7-8), they weren’t nearly as impactful as the middle episodes in my opinion.  This, I think, is why I didn’t rate it higher.  When it is good, it is excellent, but the slow beginning and the not as impactful ending really made the show seem not as suspenseful as it could have been.  Now, I didn’t “binge” watch it, but rather watched it one episode at a time on Saturdays (as a reward to myself for getting through a “hard” week), so perhaps that had something to do with it, but in my mind, a really good series should be able to be watched either one episode at a time or “binged” watched without it making a difference.

The one thing that the show really gets right (and makes the bulk of the middle episodes) is the idea of mystery and suspense.  These episodes drip feed the story to the viewer in just the right amount of atmosphere, suspense, mystery, character development, and plot progression.  We discover more about the characters, the world, the mystery of what is going on, and how all of this came to be in the middle episodes and that is what makes this show so great.  While there are horrific elements, the goal is less on trying to scare the viewers and more on creating tense and suspenseful encounters to place the characters and I really appreciated that as a viewer.

STEPHEN KING “LITE”

Okay, so I’m not really a “Horror” fan.  When I say that, I mean that while I have read some horror novels and seen some horror movies, they do not make up a major component of my genre experience (unlike Fantasy and Science Fiction).  I read authors such as Dan Simmons (in his “Horror” phase) and British author James Herbert (who would now be considered Dark Fantasy instead of Horror).  I’ve also seen movies such as Alien and others like it, but in general I prefer the feeling of wonder and excitement to that of dread and horror.

I used to read Stephen King (his 80’s and 90’s work) and ST gives me a Stephen King “Lite” vibe.  It has a construction of a less intense and less horrific version of Stephen King’s It.  I think that it is the focus on suspense rather than horror that really helped me to become invested in the series.

GOOD RESOLUTION (FOR THE MOST PART)

I liked the ending, although I have to confess, that I wanted the “love” subplot to go differently than it turned out.  The resolution of that subplot seemed forced and cliche and relied on a character change that wouldn’t have happened in real life based on the way the original boyfriend acted in the earlier episodes.  The character does a complete 180 change in behavior that was hard for me to accept based on his earlier behavior.  Also, the creators set up the early episodes giving the “new” love interest a lot of pathos by showing his backstory, his motivations, etc., but because of the old boyfriend’s abrupt change in behavior, this doesn’t go anywhere.

The ending of the main plot, however, seemed to end well and left itself open for a sequel, as shown by the Super Bowl Ad.  It definitely seems that while things resolved, it doesn’t seem like the sequel will be forced or unnecessary.   I’m actually looking forward to it.  I think it will take the show into some very interesting places.

RATING: Season 1 Grade: B+ (Above Average)

If you like suspense and mystery and don’t mind a few chills and scares, then this is a great show to watch.  Even though the cast includes a mix of child and adult actors, they all do a great job and are completely invested in the world that the show runners created.  I look forward to Season 2 later this year.

IMPLICATIONS FOR MY WRITING

I learned that putting characters that I like into dangerous situations helps to create suspense because you’re invested in that character and you don’t want to see anything bad happen to that character.  This tension is what creates suspense and why I think that the middle episodes (4-6) are so good.

Also, I learned that I shouldn’t change a character’s behavior mid-way through without a good reason (perhaps externally).  The show runners obviously wanted to show that the “old” boyfriend had a change of heart, but his change wasn’t earned well enough/strong enough (in my mind) to result in the change that occurred.  I need to remember to make any change in the character that deviates radically absolutely explicit to the reader to make the reader believe that the character could change realistically in the way I show by clearly showing the internal/external struggle that forces that change.

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The Outline’s the Thing (to Catch a Story) Redux

Outline

Source: bcourses.berkeley.edu

OUTLINING (Why the Hate?)

When I mention (either in person, or on the blog) that I outline, people react violently as if it is wrong to want/need to plan out a story.  There’s almost an elitist attitude toward creative writing without a plan, as if it is some badge of honor or mark of genius to just sit down and start writing and hope that the story will come to you as you write.  However, I think a lot of this anxiety over the outline comes from the image above.  Outlining, as you can see from an outline that I found online, requires much forethought and planning.  Inside this particular outline, you have topics, subtopics, and even nested subtopics.  If you look at this outline, however, you could write this paper.  The thesis (main idea of the paper is clearly listed and each topic relates back to this one idea.  You would only need to go and research those individual topics to craft a paragraph (or chapter) on each of those subjects, right?

Boring!  This is what makes academic papers so hated by so many students because they don’t see the need for this highly stylized way of writing.  They don’t understand the conventions behind the academic essay nor do they see the need for creating an outline that helps you to write in this formal way.  They hate it and, by extension, they dislike the process of outline.  This is too much trouble.  Why in the world would anyone put themselves through this willingly?

The reason is simple: It gives a concrete roadmap as to where the paper is going.  You, or I, with enough research could write this paper.  We know what we need and we know where to put it.  Now that the outline is done, we simply just need to find out what we don’t know about the subject (the research) and then start drafting it.

CREATIVE WRITING 101

So, do you need to outline like this for a story?  No, of course not–an outline can be as simple (or complex) as you need it to be for your own purposes.  For me, I use a slightly modified version of this outline:

This has the bare minimum that I need to tell my story.  I need to know the setting (where and when the story is taking place), the major characters and any minor characters that I’ve thought up.  I need to know what the main character’s problem is  and why it is so important to them.  I need to know the three main scenes that happen in the story (beginning, middle, and end)–I used to use five scenes and I would structure it like a Shakespearian play, but I discovered that it was making my stories too long for many markets and it wasn’t really adding a whole lot to the story–that’s why I’ve gone back to just the essentials.  I also need to know the outcome of the story (how does it end).  I’ve also added one thing: the Theme (why does this story matter, or what am I trying to impart to the reader).  Now, I’m not trying to give a moral to the story, but I do want to have the character discover some “truth” about themselves, life, or others at the conclusion of a story and knowing what a possible theme could be at the beginning helps me to do this.  Outlines don’t inhibit creativity; rather, they provide a sense of knowing one’s destination and the steps needed to get there.

AN IMAGINARY TRIP TO FLORIDA

So, right now, I could go jump in my car and go to Florida.  I know that Florida is south and east of me and I know which direction southeast is from where I sit as I’m typing these letters.  I would only need to get on the highway, keep going in a southeasterly direction, and eventually I would make it to Florida.

google maps 2

But in real life that’s not what I would do, nor most of us, if we’re truthful.  We would open up Google Maps or Apple Map or some other mapping application on our phones (or other navigational aid, or, if you’re old school, a physical map) and we’d plan out our trip and use the app or navigational aid to help us navigate the highway system.

So, how is this any different from outlining a story?  To quote Yoda: “No, no different, only different in your mind.”  Just like I could get to Florida by heading in a general southeasterly direction, I could write a story by just jumping in without outlining, but there would be so many wrong turns, dead-ends, and general confusion, that I wouldn’t be having any fun and I would most likely abandon the project before I finished (or to continue the metaphor, turned around and went back home in frustration).

SAVING THE STORY, ONE OUTLINE (STORY MAP) AT A TIME

Now I’m a great proponent in finding the process that works for you as an individual.  No two writers are going to write in the same way, using the exact same process.  I’m also a great proponent for the idea of “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”  If what works for you is to jump write in without an outline, and you’re a successful writer (aka making a living at it), then don’t try to change it.

However, I’m also a proponent of tinkering and adjusting something that’s broken until I get it to work (longtime readers of the blog know of my almost year long quest to find the solution to my wi-fi issues back in 2014-2015–read the posts from that year for more info).  If you find yourself not as successful as you’d like to be as a writer, or you are abandoning story after story, or that you can’t your stories to match the vision in your head (like what was happening to me about a year ago when I wrote the original blog entry “The Outline’s the Thing (to Catch a Story)”), outlining should be a technique that you should at least try in order to see if it might work for you.  My process was broken because I need to outline.  Just jumping in only results in frustration for me.

In conclusion, writing is such an individual process that the only way to know what works for you is to try it.   The advice to just dive right in and not to worry about outlines, while well meaning, isn’t really helpful or useful advice unless that’s what works for you.  If it doesn’t, it’s like telling a drowning man, “hey, just suck it up and keep struggling, you might just learn how to swim eventually,” whereas the process of outlining could be the “life-preserver” that the drowning man can use to keep himself afloat.

P.S. In case you think I’m the only one who thinks this way, I’d encourage you to take a moment to enjoy some of these quotes by other writers who “think” the same way I do:

I force myself to outline, but not too closely, so I guess I plot by the seat of my pants? My natural instinct is to dive right in, but I know I’ll get stuck. I like to stick with the architect vs. gardener metaphor. I guess I’m a gardener who plants tomatoes. I have the sticks in the ground and let the vines grow along those parameters.
–Victoria Aveyard

I am a big outliner. For my adult book, ‘The Visibles,’ I did not outline, and it took me two years to write because I just didn’t outline, and I had no path.
–Sara Shepard

I am a writer who works from an outline. What I generally do when I build an outline is I find focal, important scenes, and I build them in my head and I don’t write them yet, but I build towards them.
–Brandon Sanderson (one of my personal favorite authors at the moment)

If you take a few days to write an outline, you’re just making up scenes that you think will work, that you think will be interesting. But as you write it, other ideas occur – better ideas that have to do with what you’re writing.
–Elmore Leonard

I have a number of writers I work with regularly. I write an outline for a book. The outlines are very specific about what each scene is supposed to accomplish.
–James Patterson

and probably the most telling of all:

I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write.
–J. K. Rowling

(Source: http://www.brainyquotes.com)

Book Haul for April 2017

 

books images

I love books and I love reading.  I love going to bookstores and libraries and just walking down the rows of books, pulling out books that look interesting, reading the blurbs on the dust jackets and the backs of the books.  However, I don’t love the modern incarnation/conception of libraries and bookstores with their focus on book “communities,” reading “clubs” (aka reading “circles” or “groups”), and focus on other non-narrative media (movies, audio, and even video games are fine for me because of the narrative aspects of those media, but when start moving into toys, and food and beverages, that is where I lose interest).  However, I discovered that if I’m able to get to the bookstores/libraries early enough in the day, I can recapture some of that joy in cruising the aisles in order discover that special book that I can lose myself in.  So, I thought I write this week’s blog entry on the four books that I bought recently at a used bookstore.  I don’t know if this will become a regular feature of the blog, but it seemed like something fun to write about.  I bought two fiction books and two non-fiction books this time around.

TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT (Book 13 of the Wheel of Time Series) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Towers_of_Midnight_hardcover

I have read this book before.  I have completed the entire Wheel of Time novel series having started reading them way back as an undergraduate when I started my college career at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) before I transferred to U.T. Chattanooga (UTC) a couple of years later.  This series is one that I found with help from a friend from high school who was also attending UTK  (An aside: quite a few of us actually ended up at UTK, especially in that first year and we often talked about cool Fantasy novels that we were reading).  I read this book about a year or two after it was published.  I didn’t read it initially because I concerned about Sanderson’s (or any other writer’s, for that matter) ability to successfully conclude the story that Jordan had been working on for so many years.  However, after reading an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) of Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings, I felt confident in Sanderson’s approach that I went ahead and finished the three books the Wheel of Time Series.

WRITING FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION: HOW TO CREATE OUT-OF-THIS WORLD NOVELS AND SHORT STORIES by Orson Scott Card, Philip Athans, and Jay Lake & the Editors of Writer’s Digest.

Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

Source: Amazon.com

This is one of those books that I simply couldn’t resist based on the cover and the title.  I try to buy only one book in each genre (in this case, how to: writing), but I simply couldn’t help myself when I saw it.  It covers a lot of material that I already know and/or have in other forms somewhere else, but I”m super interested in transitioning from short form Fantasy and Science Fiction into long form Fantasy and Science Fiction and I’m looking for any tips and techniques that I can find to aid me in my process.  It also has a very comprehensive “reference” section that relates to various historical elements that might be useful to a Fantasy writer, in particular and I just couldn’t resist.  I don’t think it will be as helpful to me as the other book on writing that I bought (see below), but it did have a dragon on the cover.  Note to future authors: if you want to pique my interest, just put a dragon or a spaceship on the cover.

BLEAK HOUSE by Charles Dickens

bleak houseOkay, so this is one of those books for “school.”  My program has a fairly exhaustive list of famous/important literary works for incoming PhD students to read and take a test on.  Now I’ve already taken (and PASSED! 🙂 ) this exam, but I the idea of a list of important literary works is a “challenge” that I really want to undertake.  So I’ve made it my goal to finish all the books on this list.  I actually downloaded the audio version of this book to listen to on the drive to and from school, but I really do follow the story better when I can read it, rather than listen to it.  So, I decided to buy this copy and read it during my “downtime” between classes, waiting in lines, etc.  I’ve read Dickens before, but not this specific book, so I’ll be interested to see if I like it as I do all of the other Dickens novels that I have read.

WRITING THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL by Albert Zuckerman

Writing the blockbuster novel

Source: Amazon.co.uk

This is another book that I’ve read before–I read it at the Chattanooga Public Library long before I started working there.  It didn’t really make all that much of an impression on me at the time as I was primarily interested in learning “short story” writing.  I wanted to learn how to write short form fiction before stepping up to the “big” works of novels, screenplays, and the like (graphic novels, while around, were not really viable options at that time).  Now, however, I think that I’m ready to learn the lessons of novel writing.  I especially love the fact that point number on the dust jacket in the inside cover is “how to develop and use an outline.”  Anyone following the conversation that I had two weeks ago with a blog commentor named Tom Cordle will appreciate the fact that I like outlines to guide my stories into rough draft stages.  Outlines make sense to me where as just jumping in blind does not.  I can’t tell you how many novels that I have “in my mind” that did not make the translation onto the page because I did not complete a strong outline/rough draft.  I’m hopeful that this book will allow me to produce an outline for a novel over the summer and (fingers crossed) a rough draft for it by Christmas of this year as well.  Well, I can dream big, at least.

Well, that’s it for me.  Here’s hoping you have wonderful, book-filled, week.

 

Working Smarter, Not Harder

keep-calm-and-think-work-smarter-not-harder

Source: Lifehack.org

 

WORK-LIFE BALANCE

As I work to perfect my “Work-Life” Balance, I have found that I haven’t been utilizing my time and resources as effectively as I could and this blog entry details some of the ways in which I have developed to address this imbalance.  In 2015, I wrote a lot, but did not maximize the submissions part of my writing.  In 2016, I wrote a little, but I really focused on the submissions aspect, and did not really focus as much on my writing.  This year, I’ve tried to focus on both, but the amount of schoolwork has limited my ability to really write creatively, as you can see through the lack of blog entries that I have posted this year.  So, I had fallen back to prioritizing submissions as a way to still feel connected with the creative writing part of my life.

STEPPING STONES

However, after recently dusting off an older story that was already published and sending it to a market that accepts reprints, I realized that I already have a cache of material, that with a little reworking, that I can use as “stepping stones” to create longer, and more lucrative works.  Ship of Shadows (SoS) is a story that I created, submitted and was published in Visions IV: Space Between Stars.  I have detailed its genesis in this blog entry.  I am really proud of this story, but rather than try to reprint it in other Visions IVanthologies/markets (although I totally could as the rights have reverted back to me), I wondered if there was a way to “expand” upon it in some way, and to make it longer and more in-depth.  In other words, was there a way that I could revise (“re-vision”) the story and take the same “kernel” of the story, but “re-see” it in a new, longer form work?  I then began to brainstorm what that would look like.  First, I would need to know what longer form work is it that I’m envisioning.  The options that I would be interested in working on at the moment are graphic novels, screenplays, and novels.  In my mind, the next logical stepping stone up from a short story is the graphic novel–it is short enough to be read in one sitting (in many cases), but tells a more elaborate story.  I already know that the characters, setting, and plot are strong because it was published (& something an editor paid to publish), so why not work smarter and try to “build” upon a structure that I already know has the potential for success?  So I am currently working on outlining the graphic novel version of SoS.  I am hopeful that I will be able to write a strong rough draft from my outline during my Summer Break.  I will, of course, be detailing its construction in this blog.

MAXIMIZING FREE TIME

Okay, look, I’m a PhD student.  My days are jam-packed with reading, teaching, reading, working, reading, writing (academic), reading, grading, reading, reading, reading . . . you get the picture.  Heck, even as I type these very words, I have a 5-7 page paper to complete and an annotated bibliography to start, so my time is precious to me.  This, unfortunately, means that creative writing has gotten the short shrift during the past two semesters.  I realize, however, that I have a lot of time (free) built into my days that I’m not utilizing in a very productive way.  On those days where I’m “free” (i.e., no classes, I should take an hour as I’m eating to simply write on the current draft that I’m working on).  On the days I have to “work” (i.e., days where I have classes or academic commitments, I should simply outline/rough draft future works).  That way, I’m always working on something current and will be ready for those extended “Breaks” (Summer & Winter) when I can devote my full time and resources to the things that I’ve outlined or rough drafted.  On weekends, my time should be used for preparing submissions.  If I can somehow achieve and maintain this balance, I think my writing production and my satisfaction with the writing process will improve immensely.

Well, that’s all I have time for this week.  I’ve got assignments to write, papers to grade, and books to read, so I’ll sign off.  Here’s hoping you have a successful week, and with luck, hopefully I’ll have a successful writing week as well.