Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Difference Between Books and Movies

So I went to see the new Twilight movie. I went by myself so I wouldn’t have to put up with editorial comments from the men in my family. They are not the target audience. As Stephanie Zacharek suggests on, it’s sometimes more fun to watch in a critic-free zone.
I thought Catherine Hardwicke did a good job of translating the book to film. Some things were done differently than I would have done them, some parts were cast differently than I would have chosen, but I am not a filmmaker, I’m a writer. I know my limitations.
Afterwards, I looked at the professional reviews on They were decidedly mixed, but I knew that it was possible that those who did not like the movie would not have liked the books, either.
I wanted to know what readers who loved the books thought of the film, so I checked out the comments on the Twilight LA Times blogs and on the forums on rottentomatoes. Some (by no means all) of the Twilight-lovers who posted were disappointed. They called the movie awkwardly comical, unbelievably bad, craptastic, and one of the worst remakes of a book I’ve ever seen. They described themselves as gravely disappointed and utterly and completely appalled.
What I’m saying is, those who were disappointed were REALLY disappointed.
Common themes seemed to be that the movie left things out, it was nothing like the book, it didn’t capture some crucial element in the book, it didn’t match the reader’s vision of the book, and it was too short and rushed.
It reminded me of my sister, after the Lord of the Rings movies came out. “They were pretty good,” she said, “but I can’t believe they left out Tom Bombadil.”
Well, I said, the movies were three hours long as it is. How long did you want them to be?
Keep in mind that I am a total LOTR nerd.
Probably the most common question I get from readers is, When are they going to make your books into a movie? Personally, I think it would be really cool if they were. But I think any reader who eagerly anticipates a movie made from a book she loves is risking disappointment.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: books are a partnership between readers and authors. Each contributes to the final story. In effect, every reader reads a different book, shaped by her own emotions and experiences. When we watch a movie, we have to accede to the director’s vision. So it stands to reason that some if not most of us are going to be disappointed when we see our favorite books committed to film. The more favorite it is, the more we have contributed and the more disappointed we will be.
Given the fact that Twilight is a romance first and foremost, I think Twilight readers contributed more to the final story than, say, a reader of military science fiction.
There are things that a book can accomplish that a movie cannot. I persist in believing this.
So, gentle reader: be careful what you wish for.
PS: Twilight fans have voted with their cash. During its first weekend, Twilight the Movie scored $70.5 million in domestic sales on a production budget of only $37 million.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Tools Writers Could Use

My son Keith called me on the phone the other day when he was trying to avoid doing his homework. You are supposed to call your parents now and then when you’re away at college, right? Homework is a great incentive for keeping those communications lines open.
So Keith harked back to an old Dimitri Martin gag in which the Microsoft Word office assistant paperclip tries to help someone write a ransom note. “It looks like you’re writing a ransom note,” the paperclip says. “You should use more forceful language. You’ll get more money.”
So Keith said he wished a paperclip (or maybe a little calculator) would appear on his computer screen and say, “It looks like you’re trying to solve a quadratic equation. Would you like some help?”
I happened to be sitting in the writing den, and I got to thinking about the kinds of office assistant tools writers could use, built into their word processing programs. For example, the paperclip says:
It looks like you’re trying to resolve a major plot problem. Had you thought of hiding the townspeople in the salt mines?
Or: It looks like you’ve completely forgotten about the sidekick character you introduced in Chapter 3. Perhaps you should either give him something to do or get rid of him.
Or: It looks like your plot is getting rather bogged down in the middle. What if Alice turned out to be Jack’s long-long sister who murdered their father?
Or: It looks like 95% of your character names begin with M. Unless you are intentionally going for alliteration, you may want to change some of them to avoid confusing your readers.
Or: It looks like your main character has raked his hair out of his eyes 32 times so far and we’re only on p 163. Consider having him rub his chin or massage his temples. No more throat clearing, though.
Or: It looks like you’ve been working really hard today. Why don’t you take the rest of the day off and I’ll finish off your 1666 words for NaNoWriMo.
It could happen. Writers are dreamers, after all.

Office Assistant for Fantasy Writers

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

World Fantasy Convention 2008

If you read this blog, you know I recently attended the World Fantasy Conference in Calgary, Ab. (October 30-November 2, 2008) The Guests of Honor included David Morrell, Barbara Hambly, Tom Doherty, and Todd Lockwood. The toastmaster was Tad Williams.
It was both my first time in Calgary and my first time at the WFC. By popular demand (well, one person), I thought I’d provide a few impressions of the WFC experience.
Most of the conferences I attend are 1) nutrition conferences and 2) conferences for people who write for children and teens. This con was different in several ways.
One happy difference is that many of the other cons I attend attract mostly women. This one seemed fairly evenly balanced between the genders. So the lines at the ladies room were much shorter than I am used to.
There were more free spirits at this con than at other meetings I attend. (I’m talking about the attendees, not the liquid refreshments, though I did spend time in the hospitality suites). Satin and velvet and sequins and glitz mingled with business casual which rubbed shoulders with torn blue jeans and tee shirts. (No costumes, though). Everyone was laid back and friendly, though I knew very few people before I came.
There was a certain good-natured confusion at the Con with regard to programming. Apparently final programming decisions were made rather late. So several panel participants didn’t realize they were scheduled to be on a panel until the very last minute. Some had conflicts, and didn’t make it at all. But most of the panelists dealt with life’s little surprises with good humor and flexibility.
Similarly, prep for panelists varied from seat of the pants and skin of the teeth to extensive. I was at the over-prepared end of the continuum, showing up to my panel with typed notes, FAQ’s and illustrative passages highlighted in several books—everything but an LCD projector. It all worked.
The dealer’s room was a clearing-house for fantasy literature, including fiction, magazines, and anthologies. It was a great overview of markets and product.
It’s important to note that the Cons are directed by an all-volunteer crew. It’s a huge undertaking, and bless ‘em for taking this on. Just the thought of it makes me want to roll under the bed. Except that’s where the monsters are.

Some Panels and Programs I Attended

Are Appendices Needed? (Tad Williams, L.B. Modesitt Jr., Julianne Lee, Susan Forest, Barb Geller Smith) – this refers to maps, glossaries, genealogical charts, and the like. The consensus seemed to be that authors themselves need maps, glossaries, etc. But if readers need them to follow the story, there’s something wrong. Many saw these features as value-added, cool stuff to entice and engage the reader.
Blind Alleys and Red Herrings: Mystery in Young Adult Fantasy (me, Brenda Cooper, Deborah Beale, Matthew Peterson, Alison Baird) This was my panel. We discussed how challenging it is to confuse and tantalize the diverse YA audience. Strategies included plot layering, pacing, chapter and title mechanics, and writerly sleight-of-hand.
The Writer’s Voice (workshop by David Morrell) Morrell spoke for an hour and a half without notes. (Whoa.) He described his challenging early life (he spent time in an orphanage and lived with a stepfather who disliked him). Morrell quoted Graham Greene in saying that an unhappy childhood is a goldmine for a writer. He says that the most important thing for a writer to do is to use his own history, to be himself, to pay attention to waking dreams.
YA Panel (Garth Nix, Linda DeMoulemeester, Sharyn November, Anne Hoppe, Kathryn Sullivan). Best take-away: Garth Nix said we should “never judge a book by its category, and never judge a category by its worst example.”
I already addressed the “Killing Off Significant Characters” panel in another post.
This con is very literature and art-focused, and many of the attendees appeared to be professionals. It was a great opportunity to connect with some marquee names of the fantasy game, including editors, agents, publishers, and authors. I spent some quality time with my agent, too.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Killing Off Significant Characters

I am driven to write on this topic in answer to the many readers who have finished The Dragon Heir, the last novel in the Heir Trilogy. Some have written to take me to task for killing off one of the major characters.
One reader wrote and said,
I will admit that when ___ died, I started crying. I actually had to put the book down for several minutes, because I was crying so hard.
Another wrote and said, You did NOT have to do that.
Some readers said they were totally blind-sided, and others that it was totally predictable. Several questioned whether the character’s death was faked and suggested there might be another book coming in which he/she might be resurrected.
To be fair, not everyone agreed that the death was a mistake. One reader described the ending as absolutely perfect. Another wrote to say that I had not killed off ENOUGH characters and had a list of a few more I could have offed. (Should I worry about this reader?)
It’s fairly common that characters are killed in books and movies—but they’re usually minor characters. There’s even a term for dispensable characters that came from the science fiction series, Star Trek—“red shirts.” According to Wikipedia, “A redshirt is a stock character, used frequently in Star Trek, whose primary purpose in the plot of a story is to die soon after being introduced, thus demonstrating the dangerous circumstances faced by the main characters.” The security officers wore red shirts, you see, and generally didn’t survive planetary landings. The main characters—Kirk, Spock, Scotty—survive major battles time and time again.
In the westerns of my childhood, main characters always ended up with their arms in a sling, to demonstrate that they had not escaped completely unscathed.
Killing off major characters is not a new thing. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously killed off Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Final Problem, published in The Strand magazine. According to The Chronicles of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ( more than twenty thousand enraged fans cancelled their subscriptions to the magazine. After considerable pressure from readers, Conan Doyle eventually brought his detective back to life in The Adventure of the Empty House.
Supposedly, J.K. Rowling wept when a character died in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Neither did she enjoy killing one of her favorite characters who died at the end of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. More deaths followed in Deathly Hallows. So it seems reasonable to ask—why did she do it? Why does any author kill off the characters they brought to life on the page?
I recently attended the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary. There was actually a panel on killing significant characters, including authors Tad Williams, George R.R. Martin, and Steven Erikson. Martin, especially is known for the ever-expanding body count of main characters in his most recent fantasy series.

World Fantasy Convention, Calgary
Martin makes no apologies. In fact, he says, Gandalf should have stayed dead in Lord of the Rings, because he was the man with all the answers, and the Fellowship should have been left on its own. Erikson argued that it’s all right if dead characters come back, if they come back as different people—transformed by their death experiences.
Williams surmises that you’re seeing more deaths of significant characters these days because modern speculative fiction seeks to be more realistic. But, he said, the death has to have some impact on the story. Erikson agreed. “If it’s a random death, people tend to get really pissed.” Martin argues that it’s unreasonable to think that in a story filled with violence and clashes of arms that no named character would die.
During the Q&A at the WFC panel, I asked the panelists how they respond to reader complaints about the deaths of significant characters. “I tell them to quit complaining,” Tad Williams said, “or I’ll kill them all off.”
He was joking. Really.
So—about Dragon Heir. It’s hard for me to explain my rationale for the choice I made in DH without major spoilers, so—spoiler alert!! Read further at your peril!
* * * * * * * *SPOILERS BELOW* * * * * * * * *
Many of the reasons cited by the WFC panel underlaid my decision to have a major character die near the end of DH. Death is what happens in wartime, and the Weirguilds are involved in a war. I knew it was going to happen, and to whom, from the beginning. That is one reason it was important to have two viewpoint characters throughout the book.
About Jason—Readers don’t seem to believe me when I say that Jason Haley is one of my favorite characters. He was so flawed, so human, so edgy and full of self doubt. Jason’s fate had a lot to do with his personality and his desires—it wasn’t random. He was reckless and careless and had a kind of death wish in him. He took chances—life for him was a series of dares. He could never see how important he was to the other characters in the story.
What Jason wanted most in life was to make a difference. And he did. He saved everyone by letting go of the Dragonheart and getting Madison where she needed to be. He was the only one who understood that Madison was the key. And he saved Jack and Ellen by killing D’Orsay. It was revenge, but there was an inevitability about it that made sense to me.
Do I have any regrets? I wish that Jason and Leesha had had a final scene together—some kind of resolution. On the other hand, it seemed to me that Leesha had to pay a price for all the terrible things she’d done. And she did pay a price. It was life-changing.
I also wish I’d spent more time on the denouement. The grief scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf was killed recognizes and highlights the importance of the loss. The ending of DH seemed abrupt, my readers tell me.
* * * * * * * * *END OF SPOILERS* * * * * * * * * *
That said, any rationale for killing off a character seems like an excuse for a cold-blooded decision. You killed him off to prove a point, didn’t you? To teach a lesson. To raise the stakes. To tug at the reader’s heart strings.
You killed him off because that is what the story demanded.
That last is the only reason that matters. And the argument can go on forever about whether that applies here.