Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Star Wars Opera, Part I - the Tragic Hero

I was watching Star Wars II and III the other night and feeling quite disgruntled as I usually do when watching these movies. And yet, I cannot look away...

The reason is that because I am a writer, whenever a story irks me, I start taking it apart and figuring out how it could have worked. This may seem like arrogance on my part--who am I, after all, compared to George Lucas?--but writing and storytelling is my trade, and my education included analysis of great books and stories. It's not dissing Shakespeare if you analyze Romeo and Juliet to see how it works and why. Or even why it works for you and why it doesn't.

But I think that though the movies are fairly entertaining, if a few things had changed, Star Wars I, II, and III could have been a classic epic tragedy on a Shakespearean scale. It could even have been translated into a Wagnerian opera akin to the Ring Cycle. I mused briefly on this during my lunch hour on Facebook, and Emilie Storrs, an opera singer, mentioned the potentially Wagnerian aspect of the series.  She is quite right.

The thing about classic operatic tragedies, however, is that like classic stage plays, the characters must be bigger than life, and it must be clear that they encapsulate some very noble characteristics as well as some serious tragic flaws.  They must have tragic heroes/heroines.

In classic tragedy, the hero of the piece is generally a good person, but has a fatal flaw that propels him to eventual destruction of body, mind, and/or soul.
If you look at Shakespeare's Othello, for example, Othello is basically a good man. He is courageous and has integrity. You know he is because he is admired for those characteristics even amongst people who are not of his own race or country, so much so that he is given a position of great responsibility, which causes the villainous Iago to become envious and plot his destruction. However, Othello's fatal flaw is jealousy, so that it overwhelms his good sense and  and propels him to destroy, ultimately, all that he loves, including himself. Yet, Othello is clearly a man in charge, who knows how to command respect until his fatal flaw overcomes him. In the end, you grieve that such a man is destroyed; he was noble and good once, a man of honor, until he let his jealousy get the best of him.

I wish I could say the same of Anakin Skywalker. It's clear to me that his impatience arises out of an extreme need to prove himself, which is the essence of arrogance. That, in turn evolves into Anakin creating a shield of invulnerability around him, a shield made of a need to protect himself from any idea that he may be weak or unable to control his environment. And if, in the end, it means accusing those who love him as being his enemies, so be it.

All along, it's pointed out that he has the talent, but not the discipline or the patience to become, for example, a full member of the Jedi council. He is, in essence, immature and remains so until we see him as Darth Vader in Star Wars IV. He can love, it's true. But it's a childish love, not a fully adult love.

Even as the adult Darth Vader, it's clear he's as impetuous and easily manipulated as a child; he is a slave to the Emperor Palpatine until the very end of Star Wars VI. Darth Vader is clearly powerful, more powerful than Palpatine. Why doesn't he ever strike out on his own? Even become an Emperor himself? He could. He has the natural power.

The immaturity persists. In essence, Anakin never really grows up. His death in the end is the death of a stunted child in a broken man's body.

What would Anakin Skywalker as a true tragic hero look like? What would make a noble and fully-adult Anakin turn against the Jedi?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, May 20, 2012

How I write

Argh! My computer is in the shop now--I haven't been able to log onto the thing since Friday, hence the late response to "Ask Me Anything" Friday.

But, thank goodness for my iPad. Why I didn't think to use it earlier, I don't know. Duh. Anyway....

Anna H commented (via Facebook):

When noodling the idea for a new book, how detailed do you get, initially? I mean, do you outline the basic plot and characters and go from there, or do you have a germ of an idea and let it grow, taking you where it will?

I'm what's known as a "pantzer"--I usually go by the seat of my pants, or, as you say, I have a germ of an idea, let it grow, and then I go where it leads me. At the same time, I'm very conscious of a sense of structure underlying whatever it is that comes up. I know a story is ready and will work if I have that sense of structure, and most of the time, I find out it's sort of archetypal in nature, that is, I can usually find a myth or a fairy tale in the middle of it.

I don't mean something like Cinderella, although that did come up once (more like "Cinderfella"), and it didn't hit me until about half-way through the book what it actually was.

It all sounds rather disorganized, but to put a better word on it, it's "organic." :-)

That said, it's often helpful for me by the half-way point in the book to look back at what I've written already and see how well the story is structured. I use a five-point structure to analyze the story. If the story hits the right points in the structure give or take a page or two, then I know the pacing is going to be pretty solid.

Sometimes, I don't analyze the structure until I'm almost done, or even after I'm done. One of the dangers of analyzing too soon is that I lose the flow of the story, or I end up second-guessing myself, and I've come to learn that second-guessing myself is not a good thing. I really do have to trust that the Muse knows what she wants to say and to let her say it, no matter how odd or crazy it may seem. Or scares me silly. Seriously, there have been times I've thought while in the process of writing, "are you NUTS? NOBODY will buy this, it's way too out there." I remember thinking this back in 1995 when I had a vampire hero in a Regency England-set romance. Yeah, kind of a Jane Austen meets Dracula thing (not actually Jane Austen, but just imagine if one of Jane Austen's heroines had an arranged marriage with a vampire. Yeah, like that).

Years later, everyone was doing that kind of thing, so hey, not so crazy.

So these days, if the Muse gives me a crazy, irresistible idea, I try to go with it, because chances are good everyone will be doing it a few years later. :-) This happens a lot to me.

Which is why, when people ask me what trend they should be writing to, I tell them, whatever story grabs you and won't let you go, THAT'S the trend. Because chances are pretty good that if you're writing something that grabs you by the throat and won't let go, your Muse is telling you what will be the next big thing, and that you need to write it before it passes.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ask Me Anything Friday

Once again, it's Ask Me Anything Friday.

It worked pretty well last week, so I'm continuing.  :-)
I'll reply either in the comments section during the week or in another blog post within a week of the question asked (more or less, depending on how many questions I get).

Some topics:
  • Art and craft of writing
  • High concept ideas
  • Publishing
  • Markets
  • Writing contests
  • Trends - what subgenres are hot--or should be
  • How-to items
  • Writing life
So, ask away!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Contests - worth it?

Roxy asked:

Wondering what you think of the future for writing contests, given the economy and the rise of indie publishing.
Roxy, I think contests—legitimate, reputable contests—still have some real value even in these days of online publishing, especially for the indie author.

One of the things that contests have historically provided was a certain legitimacy in the eyes of the publishing world. As more and more ebooks are published, this is not only true for traditional publishers, but it’s true for the reader. A reader has to discern—quickly, because people only have so much time to figure out what books they want to read—what new or veteran author they really want to spend their money on. An author announcing that the book won a contest is a promotion tool that also helps readers make their decision.

For example, it says something when a published novel has “RITA winner” on it. Savvy romance readers know that this book has won the equivalent of the Academy Awards in the romance writing world. Anyone can look up this award on the internet and see it for themselves.

Same thing for the Golden Heart, and other well-known RWA chapter contests. It means something to have won, or even been a finalist in, these awards. I imagine the same is true for organizations that support other genre writers.

But what if you didn’t win? Well, there’s still value in contests.

Contests can be a testing field where you put your story out in front of people who don’t know you, don’t care, and will judge your story solely on if it’s a good read or not. One of the worst things for any writer’s reputation is to put her manuscript out into the big wide publishing world only to have her baby die from the scorn heaped upon its birth. News travels fast on the internet, and I know of one author’s public humiliation at the hands of people who commented about her book on an ebook review site. If I recall correctly, that altercation reached all the way to mainstream online news sources.

Trust me, you don’t want to go there.

When you enter a contest, it’s usually anonymous—RWA’s Golden Heart contest for unpublished writers is one such. If you didn’t win or final, nobody but you knows it. If your book wins, finals, or gets high scores, at least you know that whether you submit it to a mainstream publisher or decide to epublish it yourself, you have a chance at doing well in the marketplace. Sure, you'll always get people who diss your work, but at least you have that contest win in your pocket to take out and assure you that a legitimate group of judges thought your story was the hot ticket to a good read.

If you don’t score well—no harm, no fail. You pick yourself up from out of your Godiva chocolate ice cream binge and start fixing your story. You either join a critique group (if you haven’t already) to help you out and take their critiques seriously, or you save up enough money to hire someone to edit your book.

So go ahead and enter some legitimate contests (emphasis on legitimate—do your research!) if you’re at the point where you think you might be ready for publication in any venue. Find one that suits your needs, whether it’s a critique, marketing creds, or having a chance at an editor or agent review. The contest entry fee is a small price to pay for good information about the stage of your writing career.

Ask me anything...

Within reason. :-)

I've decided to designate Fridays as "ask me anything" day.  Why?  Because I frankly can't think of things to post every week, and I'd love to keep on a regular schedule when it comes to blogging here.  I find I can blog best when someone asks me a question, and I have to come up with an answer.

So, I'm starting Ask Me Anything Friday.  Rules are:

  • Keep it clean (about a PG-13 rating, more or less)
  • Not too personal (I talk about every-day personal stuff on a non-daily basis on my other blog, The Pollyanna Files)

I'll reply either in the comments section during the week or in another blog post within a week of the question asked (more or less, depending on how many blog-post-worthy questions I get).

Some topics I've commented on have been:
  • Art and craft of writing
  • Publishing
  • Markets
  • Writing contests
  • Trends
  • How-to items
  • Writing life
So, ask away!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

E-book Prices

A fellow writer commented that it seemed odd many mainstream book publishers are pricing their ebooks the same as they'd price their regular paper books.  It does seem odd, doesn't it?  After all, there's less overhead in the production of ebooks than there would be in a paper book.  Certainly, the cost of materials would be less.

I think the market is in the testing phase, and there is more in the cost of production that goes into pricing.

The natural thing to assume about ebooks is that because they are rather...non-physical compared to paper books, and of course the reproduction costs are minimal compared to printing books,the books should therefore be priced at a lower cost than paper books.

I won't get into the fact that the electrons and molecules that make up data are as real as those in our bodies, and without those electrons, both ebooks and our bodies would burst into nothingness, because that would not only be irrelevant to this post, but would start me down the road to science fiction, which I don't want to get into at this point. :-)

But where pricing is concerned there are a few factors to consider.

1. Cost of production

All books, regardless of type, have a certain cost of production. You ever hear about the fact that "time is money"? Exactly. You go to work, you type up a report, fix a car, or code some software, and your boss pays you for that time. Same thing happens with a book, whether it's an ebook or a paper book. Regardless of whether the book is electronic or paper, someone puts in the time thinking up the story and hours upon hours of writing it. Then that person goes through and edits the book (I hope!). Someone creates a cover for it, whether it's painted or whether it's created on Photoshop. All these people need to be paid so that they can have a roof over their heads and food on the table. For paper books, editors go over the book in various stages to see if there are any errors that need to be fixed, anything from punctuation and grammar errors to story continuity. Trust me, an author can be as meticulous as all get-out and go over her story five times and still miss something, so having an editor or a very good critique group is essential. Editors, of course, need to be paid.

Of course, the production similarities diverge when it comes to the physical production.  For paper books, there is the cost of getting paper, printing them, puting physical book covers on them, and all the costs involved in putting the books on trucks and driving them to various bookstores and grocery stores. Oh, and yes, those running the stores have to be paid, too. All of that goes into the price of a book. About 94% of the price of a paper book pays everyone except the author. The author generally gets 6% of the cover price. So, a paper book costs $5, the author gets 30 cents of that.

Even with an ebook, the retailer--Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, etc.--get their cut.

2. Quality

Let's say you had a choice between two outfits. One is designed by Armani, is a perfect fit, makes you look 10 lbs thinner, and is made of silk so soft it's to die for. The other one is made of polyester that could sand the glaze off pottery and makes you look like your mother on drugs. Which would you choose? The dynamite silk outfit of course. The silk outfit is quality, the polyester is not. Most people are willing to pay a bit more for well-made silk than for poorly-made polyester.

3. Perception of value

Which brings me to the perception of value.  In the example of quality above, all other things being equal, you'll probably want to get the Armani rather than the polyester-looks-like-your-mother-on-drugs outfit.  Let's say you didn't even see a picture of the outfits, but you know that they're in your size and in a color you like.  Again, which one would you go for?  I bet the Armani.  Why?  Because chances are really good that the Armani would be better made and look good.  In fact, if the polyester outfit cost $75, and the Armani cost $150--$75 more!--you'd still go for the Armani because at that price, it's worth it, even though it costs more than the polyester no-name suit, because a good Armani suit goes for around $200 on sale if you're lucky.

In other words, to most people, the name "Armani" has value.  The company has a good reputation for well-made clothes.

But what if there's another company that makes to-die-for clothes--one you haven't heard of?  How do you hear about it?  Maybe a friend decided to take a chance, and ended up loving that company's clothes.  He or she tells you about it.  That previously no-name company now has a little bit more value to you--enough so that you're willing to give it a try--because your friend liked it, and you trust your friend.

The same thing goes for books.

In this exploding ebook publishing world, you get every kind of pricing from free to $10.00.  You have every kind of person's work--from a teenager's fan fic homage to Twilight to J.K. Rowling--out there for sale.  There are probably hundreds of thousands of books out there that you could download.  How do you choose?

It basically comes down to cost of production, quality, and perception of value.

Even with ebooks, the cost of production will vary.  There are more than a few ebooks out there by writers who couldn't spell their way out of a paper bag, whose stories are boring, or simply don't make any sense.  The production costs are really low because the writer just wrote whatever and the uploaded it, and maybe slapped a bland cover on it that they Photoshopped in about a minute.  That's low production cost, right there, and hand in hand with that is low quality.

These books may be free or cost 99 cents, but even at free you're going to wonder why you spent the time you did even trying to get through it.  Your opinion of the book may be a matter of taste, but there are some real, objective, quality issues that are important to a production of a book that make even a free one torture to spend your time on.  And your time is limited, right? Why even spend 5 minutes with a low-quality book, even if it's free?  Because, you see, it's not really free.  You have to spend time reading it.  And your time isn't free.  It's time you could have spent elsewhere.  Do you really want to spend hundreds of hours online searching through hundreds of thousands of books for a good one?  I bet not.

You have a few time-saving choices.  You can ask friends.  You can go by an author's reputation.  You can also go by a publisher's reputation.

When an indie author has a book for sale--and let's say you don't know this author from Adam--you don't have a guarantee that this author has put in the extra effort to create a quality book.  I'm sure there are plenty of indie authors who are great.  I know some who are.  But if you buy from an established publisher, you at least can count on the fact that it's been edited by a professional, so you probably won't find many spelling or grammar errors.  The story will probably be understandable, and there will probably be a decent plot.  You can at least have that bottom-line guarantee.  You can especially have that guarantee if that book has been published by a mainstream traditional publisher that has more than a few bestsellers under its belt.  You're going by publisher reputation.

If the indie author is J.K. Rowling, you probably won't care how she's being published, you're going to buy her book or know the quality is going to be better than most.  You're going by author name recognition.

Buying a book by a well-known publisher or author saves you what precious time you have in hunting through hundreds, nay, thousands of books trying to find that pinpoint balance between an affordable price and quality.

Right now, mainstream publishers are banking on the idea that you might be willing to pay the same for their ebooks as you would for a paper book because there is a better guarantee of quality.  They're especially betting on it if the author is well-known, even a bestselling author.  Hence, the price they're putting on it is the same as for a paper book.  In other words, they're offering a service:  you pay extra for the name brand, because they have just given you some information regarding a better chance at quality and saving you some time in looking for a good book...

...for now.

Because if you find an indie author whose books are fabulous, and she's offering the book for $2.99, are you really going to go to the mainstream publisher to buy an equally fabulous book for $6?  Probably not, unless you are deeply craving that particular mainstream-published author's books.

Will mainstream publishers have to bring their prices down a bit to compete after a while?  Probably so.  The reason is because readers will eventually find indie authors who are just as good as those who are traditionally published, and the prices are between $4.99 and $2.99--99 cents if it's on sale.  This is already happening.  In fact, there are more than a few indie authors who have been traditionally published authors, and who have decided to epublish that novel they've wanted to publish for ages, but which has been turned down by traditional publishers. 

The market is in flux right now.  This is a great time to find new authors, and for authors to find new readers, and for authors to actually make a living instead of having to find a day job to support the writing (and trust me, working 60 hours a week doesn't make for great storytelling, it makes for a really, really tired person).

I don't know how long this will last.  Authors are already wishing that they had more time to write because they're spending a lot of time on things like editing, finding covers, coding their manuscripts into the appropriate format, and so on, instead of creating a novel.  And I don't know how long it'll be before Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, etc., will decide that they, too, can take the lion's share of the profits and leave the author with a smaller and smaller percentage.

I have some hope, though.  This new ebook venue means each author or group of authors can become their own small business, and that means they'll need to hire people to help them with the production of books.  It means there will be job creation, and that's good for all of us, right? 

As long as the authors get paid, that is.  :-)