Friday, April 21, 2017

Lessons from Anime- Your Lie in April and Physical Illness

In the next two weeks, we’re going to look to anime for a rather serious topic: physical and mental illness. These are two subjects that lots and lots and lots of media cover extremely poorly, some to the point of offensive for different reasons. This week we’re going to focus on physical illness.

Physical illness, particularly terminal illness, is often used as a gimmick in films to portray a strong, sweet soul, pushing through their lives despite their sickness, only to die in the film’s climax because it’s “sad”. Films like this ring hollow to the extreme because it’s so emotionally manipulative. It’s just a tear jerker ending to tug at the heart strings. It’s cheap and its cliché.

Particularly egregious is Nicholas Sparks’ Walk to Remember, partially because we never see the horrible reality of our main heroine’s illness. We barely see any symptoms or hospital rooms. Our main character looks pretty, acts strong, and goes quietly into that good night without much kicking at all. This is not the way to write physical illness. Physical illness is often debilitating, painful, and has a clear effect on the afflicted and those around them. Actually, I think the Fault in our Stars did this well because it focused on Hazel’s daily struggle with cancer. It was everywhere, from the pills and her oxygen tank to the hospital visits. Your mileage may vary on how Fault in our Stars handles other things but that’s a topic for another time.

I bring this up, because anime does this kind of thing too: regularly. Plenty of anime end with a death from a physical illness just to make you cry. It’s pure emotional manipulation without showing any of the harder parts of illness. But Your Lie in April is one anime that handles sickness well.

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Yes, it’s is easy to see Kaori as the suffering but strong heroine at the beginning. A manic pixie dream girl who’s going to help our main hero change. But she isn’t just an inspirational figure. She’s loud and brash, living life impulsively because of her illness. To hell with what anyone else thinks. She wants to get the main character to play a duet with her since she has admired him as a pianist and she’ll do anything to push him onto the stage. She honestly has a lot of character that is not based around our leading guy.

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But of course, she’s sick, which you figure out pretty early on, and her slow loss of health is not an easy or gentle thing. As time passes she starts snapping at her friends more as her emotions come unhinged. It becomes clear that her bubbly personality was often a mask to hide her illness. She takes more falls, her legs stop working right and we even get a scene of her screaming and hitting her legs in the hallway, begging them to stand. We see her seizing up on the hospital bed. Even her coloration grows paler as the show goes on.

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However, Kaori’s illness doesn’t define her. She is bursting with personality outside of her eventual death. That’s one of the keys: her illness affects her life in a variety of ways but it also doesn't dictate who she is. Its not just a one off note to make the audience cry but she’s not just that sick girl we should feel sorry for. She’s a nuanced human being beyond her struggles.

Because people who are sick aren’t just there to make people cry or develop able bodied characters arcs. They get arcs of their own and they are their own people, and Your Lie in April gives a stirring example of that done right.

We’ll talk about mental illness in Your Lie in April next week. Until then, happy writing!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Notes from New York- Quiet Middle Grade

Today on notes from New York, I want to talk about a category of book that I don’t see often, but wish I did, because of how visceral and charming it can be: quiet middle grade. Because middle grade novels are aimed at kids turning teenagers, a lot of books in this category are fast paced and action packed, or filled to the brim with humor. Sometimes both! That’s all great. I love a fun middle grade like Percy Jackson. But quiet middle grade is another beast entirely and quite hard to pull off.

When I say quiet, I don’t mean slow or boring. Quiet stories are often extremely engaging on an emotional level. They tug at the heart strings and envelop you in the ambiance, completely drawing you in even though the plot isn’t racing by at the speed of light. Rather, the plot is drifting, and you’re content to watch it pass.

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A good example of a ‘quiet’ story for younger viewers is Kiki’s delivery service, which is an incredible little movie from Miyazaki. Though the main character is a witch, the film isn’t an action fest. Rather, its about a young girl moving to a new place and starting a little business. There are so many quiet moments in this movie but they’re often pleasant, calming...even moving. The film isn’t afraid to sit in silence and let the moment pass.

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When I was interning in New York I read a submission that fit under this umbrella. Because it was set on the gulf coast I was utterly transported to my childhood vacations to Florida, so much so that I could smell it. I could feel it. It was oddly emotional and it made me home sick for the beach. That’s the kind of power that quiet middle grade can have.

So, if you have an idea that you think might be “too slow” for a younger audience, give it a go anyway. There are lots of kids who don’t mind a calmer plot, and you can trust them to sit still in a moment without getting bored. We all need our special, quiet stories to relax with on a lazy Sunday when we just want to watch the world drift by. 

That's all for now. Happy writing!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Notes from New York: Memoir and Platforms

Welcome back to Notes from New York. Today we have a shorter post, less about writing and more just a query tip in general regarding memoirs. When I first started interning I hadn’t read many memoirs (or much nonfiction in general), but within the first month, I had read several samples and two full manuscripts. The two full manuscripts were both well written and engaging. One came from a writer with a strong journalistic background and platform who had an exceedingly interesting life to boot. The other came of a writer who also had an interesting life, but did not have much of a platform to speak of.

Guess which one drew more interest from the agent?

Yes, that’s kind of the hard thing about memoirs and nonfiction in general. Any editor or agent is going to look at your life story and judge it not just on quality of story, but also on marketability? It’s not that a memoir from someone without a platform can’t sell, but it’s certainly less likely. It’s one of those difficult facts about the nonfiction publishing world. If you don’t have a platform through your work or even through social media, an agent is going to wonder if you can advertise yourself. Memoirs, unlike fiction, are deeply personal and require more self promotion.

On another note, don't try to sell your memoir as fiction. Agents can usually tell a memoir masquerading as women’s or contemporary fiction. They’ve been in this business awhile, and you don’t want to try to get an agent by lying. That’s not to say you can’t use your life as influence for a fictional novel, but remember that there is a difference between real life and fiction. Real life doesn’t have a concrete story structure, for instance, nor does it always have a complete arc.

And lastly, if the agent doesn’t accept memoir…don’t query them with memoir. Not even if they also represent women's fiction, romance, etc. Unless specified otherwise, that means the fictional genres, not memoir. It seems like common sense but you wouldn’t believe the number of people who ignore submission guidelines.

That’s it for today. Happy writing!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Lessons from Anime- The Lost Art of Tragedy in Fate/Zero and Madoka Magica

When’s the last time you watched or read a good tragedy? If you’re most people, its probably been awhile. After all, tragedies are kind of a bummer and can tug your heart strings in all the worst ways. Most story tellers aim for dramas or comedies instead for their more hopeful endings. And even when a show or book goes for tragedy, often it isn’t very good. It feels emotionally manipulative when a character is killed at the end just to get a sad, tear jerker finale. Simply put its hard to earn that tragic conclusion in a way that makes the story feel satisfying. But when it works, it works.

In a lot of ways, tragedies are kind of a lost art. When you hear the word tragedy, you probably think of the ancient Greeks or one of Shakespeare’s great plays. Good modern tragedies are far more rare because they are so hard to pull off. But today I want to take a look at two anime that understand the art of tragedy. And they both come from the mind of the same man- Gen Urobuchi.

Nicknamed the Urobutcher for the fates of many of his characters, Urobuchi, is one of the greats in the anime industry. He’s a masterful storyteller, having a talent for really getting his audience emotionally invested in the fates of the characters.

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In one of his works, Fate/Zero, magicians fight for the right to the Holy Grail through the use of heroes from all historic ages. Most of the audience goes into the story knowing it will end in tragedy (as it is a prequel). But none the less, its impossible not to get invested. The characters are likable and they have goals they hope to achieve with the power of grail. But they also have damning flaws such as arrogance, stubbornness, or naivety that ultimately will keep them from their dreams (or lives).

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In Madoka Magica, an anime that explores the Magical Girl genre (think Sailor Moon), young girls make contracts to gain powers and fight witches in exchange for the granting of one wish, any wish at all. But the venture of being a magical girl may not be so glamorous as it appears and every wish comes at a hidden cost.

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Both of these anime’s have a similar element that proves Urobuchi really understand tragedies--wishes. A great tragic hero is ultimately driven by something important to them. Maybe its even a goal to which we relate like the desire to help a close friend, make amends or even to simply survive. However, in a tragedy, the hero ultimately fails to grasp this goal because they have a damning flaw that will keep them from a happy ending. Maybe they go about getting their wish the wrong way, at the expense of others, or don’t think of the consequences. Hamlet spends too much time thinking about the path to revenge and more people die because of it. Othello acts too quickly on jealousy and kills his love. Romeo and Juliet are surrounded by a society that curses their love and they die because of it (or because they needed communicate the plan better).

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Madoka Magica is the best example of this idea simply because each of the girls make a distinct wish that ultimately determines their fate. It’s not predictable by any means, but it does follow story telling 101- set up and pay off. The beginning leads to the middle leads to the end, and it all flows seamlessly together. Its one of my personal favorite anime for just that reason because its just one of the best written things I’ve ever watched.

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And its gorgeous

In all of these tragedies, the flaw is built in from the beginning. From the moment the hero sets out on their journey, we get the feeling they may falter. They may not lose everything. They may not even die. Maybe they’ll even get some semblance of a happy ending. But there will be losses and they will feel earned. It won’t just be for a tug on the emotional heart strings. Really good tragic endings feel necessary. Almost inevitable. And it is in that kind of tragedy that we find as much satisfaction as we would in a happy ending.

Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero are two stellar examples of modern tragedies, both with bitter sweet endings. They make you root for the characters despite the dark path they walk, and they make you cry when everything comes crashing down. But you don’t feel cheated. You don’t feel manipulated. You feel good, ultimately, because you’ve got to love a well told story. So if you feel like consuming a great modern tragedy in the near future, check either of these works out!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Notes from New York: Forced Immitation

Welcome back to Notes from New York! Its about time we get back to our usual schedule of updates don't you think? Well let's jump right and talk about "trying too hard".

Is there such thing as "trying too hard" in the writing world? After all, we all put our blood sweat and tears into our manuscripts. Some days it feels like we can never be enough. How can we ever put in enough effort? But actually there is such a thing as trying too hard, and it usually shows in your prose in the form of forced immitation.

In my internship, there were many occasions when I opened up a query, read the sample pages, and found myself reading a piece of literary fiction that was putting way too much effort into flowery prose. They used lots of big words that, theoretically, could be put to beautiful use. But it just didn’t sound natural. This is often a case of forced imitation. The writers behind these pages really wanted to emulate their favorite authors so they tried to mimic their style. But when you’re mimicking and trying to force your prose to be flowery through an overuse of adjectives and large words…it can verge on sounding fake, unnatural and pretentious.

Why is this? Well because this isn’t your style. It’s someone else’s that you are forcing yourself to emulate. Pro tip, a reader can always tell when a writer is faking it. Its something about the way the words are strung together. They come out stilted rather than flowing. Confused rather than clear.

Forced imitation shows in the work of commercial fiction writers too, of course. Sometimes you can tell an author is trying way too hard to mimic the style or sense of humor of one of their idols. I had a phase myself where I strove to recreate the sarcastic wit of Maximum Ride. It came out very forced and cringy...and honestly, the sense of humor in those books was already forced and cringy. 

The best way to fix this problem? Get to know your own style. Heck, maybe your style is literary, with prose like honey. Maybe your sense of humor is a riot. But as long as you’re simply imitating, you won’t find that genuine voice that sets you apart from the others. 

Of course you may continue to draw inspiration from your favorite authors. Of course continue to read, read and read more to improve your own writing. But remember, imitation at the detriment of your own voice is a killer. An agent doesn’t want ‘the next blank’. They want someone new and fresh. Take a risk on your voice and maybe you’ll find something special.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

NaNoWriMo- On Success and Failure

So its the final day of National Novel Writing Month. At this point I'm sure many of you, like me, are scrambling to reach their 50,000 word count. But I'm taking a break in this moment to talk not only about succeeding at the NaNoWriMo challenge but failing it as well.

Today, some of you will hit your 50,000 words. Some of you already have and are going for an even larger word goal. And that's AMAZING. Maybe 80% of the words are crap. Maybe you don't even know if it works as a story. But you wrote a novel in a month. That's an astonishing feat of dedication. You worked hard and even if you don't come back to this novel in the near future, you earned some valuable writing experience.

For some of you, maybe this is the first novel you've ever finished. That's even more amazing, because now you know you can do it. With enough hard work and dedication, you can type 'the end' on a book. I hope you write many, many more.

For others this is their tenth novel. Which is also SO cool. You've put out so many books and even if they haven't all been winners, some of them are. Some of them have or will taken you all the way to down the publishing road.

If you won this year's NaNoWriMo, pat yourself on the back. Take a breath. Then put away your draft and take a well deserved break. You can edit out all the terrible parts later.

But some of you may have "lost" NaNoWriMo this year. But honestly, why think about it as a loss? Whatever you managed to write--10,000 words, 20,000 words, 30,000 etc--that's still a good chunk of a novel. You're still one step closer to a completed draft. Maybe you're close to 50,000 but you won't be able to hit it today. That's fine. Take your time. What does it matter if you finish a draft in a month and a day, a month and a week or even two months? That's still a tremendous accomplishment.

The bottom line is, NaNoWriMo isn't for everyone. Sometimes people draft slowly. That's a valid way to write a novel. As long as it gets done and you're proud of it, who cares that it wasn't written in a month? You're still a writer who wrote a whole book. Celebrate that.

I've won NaNoWriMo and I've lost NaNoWriMo. Sometimes, I burnt myself out writing in October before I hit November. Last year, my life was too emotionally tumultuous and I didn't write a dang thing in the Fall. I felt terrible about it because fast drafting is my skill. I felt so unproductive and like I lost my creative spark. But then I hit spring of 2016 and I fast drafted two novels. Those novels weren't better or worse because I didn't write them in November. They were still drafts. Messy drafts, but drafts none the less.

So if you tried NaNoWriMo at all this year, whether you won or "lost", pat yourself on the back and celebrate. Not many people would even attempt what you guys did and you deserve all the credit in the world for it. Tomorrrow's a new day of writing and who knows what it will bring!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Lessons from Anime- Loving Parody in Ouran Highschool Hostclub and Assassination Classroom

Parody is a lot harder than you think.

It’s actually very hard to parody any movie, book, genre etc. in a consistently clever and interesting way. Films like ‘epic movie’ and ‘Scary Movie 1,000’ often beat the same jokes into the ground, throw in some gross humor and call it smart satire.

Often, poorly written parody can invoke eye rolls, especially if it doesn’t have a solid story of its own. If its just parody without a well written plot and characters, then it’s a house built on sand. One of the reasons I’m not that big a fan of the first Shrek movie is that at the base of its parody of fairytales is a plot that is predictable and old as time. Which makes it kinda boring.

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But there’s another reason I’m not as big a fan of Shrek, and that’s the point about parody I really want to emphasize today. There are two types of parody. The most common, and often the easier to write, is hateful parody. This satire is biting and vicious to its original source material. It hates it. Many of the jokes are intensely mean spirited because of the deep seeded hatred on the part of the authors. In the case of Shrek? Well maybe Dreamworks wanted to crush Disney down to size after Jeffery Katzenberg broke ties with them. Maybe. Shrek 2 actually improves upon the first by being less intensely bitter.

But while hateful parody would seem the most likely, there is another form of parody that is just much harder to pull off. And that is the loving parody. Loving parody truly adores the genre or movie it is parodying. But that doesn’t keep it from making fun of its target at every turn. And at the end of the day, rather than trying to take the subject down a peg, they’re celebrating it for its tropes and its good qualities.

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Ouran High school Host Club is one such satire of reverse harem and shojo manga, about a poor honor student who accidentally breaks an expensive vase and falls in debt to her school host club. Thinking she’s a guy because of her appearance, the host club promises to forgive her debt if she becomes a host herself and gets one hundred girls to ask for her. And of course half the guys end up falling for her, though especially Tamaki.

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The main male love interest, Tamaki is obsessed with the role of being the main love interest but is cripplingly insecure about it. The rest of the guys are also embodiments of various tropes, but they manage to break out of them at various points for both comedy and drama. And the lead, Haruhi, has no interest in the guy’s vying for her attention and is the most down to earth of everyone.

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This show has a great understanding of its trope but it’s not trying to break its characters down. It loves them. And at the heart of the anime is a lot of emotional sincerity. Melodramatic? Oh god yes, but that’s the fun of it. Its melodrama with enough fourth wall jokes and loving pokes to make it quality parody.

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Then there’s Assassination Classroom which is a stellar parody of the ‘Teacher goes to a dead end class and inspires them to believe in themselves and go for their dreams’ narrative. Except for in this case, the teacher is a mutant balloon looking creature that blew up the moon and is going to blow up the earth in a year. And in between inspirational lessons, the students are trying to kill their teacher, honing their skills as assassins and trying to raise their grades.

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And it’s just…its hilarious. The situation is treated rather casually and despite being constantly under fire, the teacher never stops believing in his students. At every episode he helps at least one of them step out of their shell and realize their strengths. It’s amusing to hear the lesson coming from a yellow, tentacle balloon monster, but also oddly emotionally heartwarming. The show isn’t condemning the subject of its parody. Its embracing it but flooding it with humor at the same time. And the show concludes with one of the most cry worthy scenes I’ve seen in any show.

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Loving parody is just as funny as hateful parody (in my opinion more so) but it also manages to remain sincere. Because it cares about its characters, we care about them too when they’re in trouble. We don’t laugh at their pain we feel it with them. And then we laugh at them in the very next scene. It’s certainly a harder method to pull off, but it’s worth it and ultimately so much more rewarding.