Friday, February 27, 2015

Consequences, Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

My sons talked me into watching Expelled this week. It's an hour and a half I'll never get back, so I figured I'd spend more time trying to save everyone else from it.

The acting was so-so, with a few moments that rang true and just as many that were forced, canned, or relied too much on charm rather than honest emotion. As a Theatre Arts major with a directing emphasis, I blame the director (who is also the writer, which explains SO MUCH). The actors were talented enough that they could have pulled off a terrific movie if someone had been there to say "Um, yeah, that didn't quite work, did it? What, exactly, does your character want in this scene? What is he doing right now to try to get it? How does he feel about what he's doing?" Yanno, the basics.

But that wasn't the real problem with the movie.

The real problem was that, from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie, there was no actual change. No consequences. Nothing got significantly better or worse for anyone, even though several of the characters did Very Bad Things.

Let me explain. No, is too long: Let me sum up:

[Spoiler alert. Or whatever.] Prankster Felix pulls one prank too many and is expelled from high school in the first scene. For the rest of the movie, he pulls one felony after another (breaking and entering, hacking, blackmailing, theft, fraud, forgery, etc) all so that his parents won't find out and send him to the same juvenile prison-slash-school his older brother is already attending.

Along the way, he gets help from his brother who has escaped from the school, hooks up with the beautiful girl who delivers pizza to ex-high school boys during school hours, and discovers that the high school principal is embezzling money from the school fund (what school has $10,000 just sitting around that no one will immediately miss?!!) to support his nightly gambling habit.

Felix uses this information to... blackmail the principal into letting him back into school and lying to Felix's parents about Felix's grades and general progress in his academic career.

At the end of the movie, the principal is still the principal (and, we can assume, will now allow Felix to pull whatever prank he wants, whenever he wants, and will give him all A's for his trouble), Felix is back in school (with a 10-second nod to "gonna try harder"), and his brother is back in the juvie facility. OH, and Felix now has a hot girlfriend. So there's that.

When I complained to my husband about the movie, he naturally brought up Ferris Bueller's Day Off, that classic yarn of teenage invincibility in the face of overbearing adults trying to make the kids Be Good. Overlooking the obviously superior acting, There are several - okay a few - notable differences in the eventual consequences and especially in the overall message.

First, the Beuller movie is super-duper tongue-in-cheek, with overblown concern for Ferris's "illness" and fantastical escapades that intentionally stretch the limits of credulity. The tone in Expelled seems to want viewers to believe this sort of caper could actually happen - even with an "incredibly light sleeper" mother who slumbers on through ringing phones, creaking windows, and even banging drums.

Then there are the relatively minor pranks in Beuller compared to the antics in Expelled. Ferris wants to take a day off of school. Felix wants to destroy the rest of his life. Ferris fakes a sickness. Felix fakes a report card. Ferris lies for a day. Felix lies for a week.

The principal in Beuller is overzealous and crabby, with a mission to catch the trouble-maker Ferris and expose him for his lie. While his quest is commendable by adults everywhere, his personality makes it easy to root against him. This isn't necessarily a good message, but as an antagonist, he works. The principal in Expelled, on the other hand, comes off in several scenes as a stern father trying tough love... but then he loses all credibility and sympathy when he's first revealed to be a gambler and embezzler and then caves to the blackmail. Where the first principal is a kill-joy, the second is a felon. The kill-joy has a truly rotten, slap-stick-pain-filled day. The felon... is frustrated in his plans. Ouch.

Most notably, there is the classic Beuller scene where Cameron destroys his father's Ferrari, and remarks "I can't hide this." Cameron, at least, will have to face his father and admit what he did. There will be change of one sort or another, though we're not told what it will be. By contrast, Felix... destroys his mother's expensive ceramic bowl to create a distraction. He's forced to help clean it up. Yikes.

The climax in Beuller requires him to race home before his mother gets there. The climax in Expelled requires Felix to work a quick bit of theft and blackmail before his mother arrives at the school for her meeting with the principal. The race is thrilling. The blackmail is deeply disturbing.

At the end of the day (which is how long Expelled felt), Ferris Bueller's Day Off promotes light-hearted fun. Expelled promotes doing whatever you want, so long as you keep committing felonies until no one's the wiser.

So here's a tip for writers everywhere: If your characters don't ever have to face consequences for anything they do... don't bother making them do anything. Like with fantasy magic systems, you don't get to create actions and then skip the equal and opposite reactions. Real life has rules, too... even if you don't get caught.

So... Ferris Bueller's Day Off is on Netflix right now. Now that my kids have already seen (and enjoyed, dang them) Expelled, how do you think they'll like the original?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Creating One-Dimensional Villains - in real life and in fiction

I've been fascinated, lately, by reports of public shaming of one sort or another. Several months ago, the Vanity Fair article on Monica Lewinsky....

Be honest: when you read her name, did you Boo and Hiss? Even a little? Just about everyone does. I sure did. I read it, in large part, because of her infamy, and with a doubtful, gleeful eye toward what she could possibly say to redeem herself. It brought me to tears. Tears for her shame and tears for my shame that I was a tiny, crowd-follower part of it.

Monica Lewinsky's very name is synonymous with Every Awful Thing. And, of course, we all have Very Good Reasons for this. After all, she had sexual relations with a married man, didn't she? And not just any married man, oh, no: The President of the United States... who managed to come out of their affair relatively unscathed. When you mention Bill Clinton, it's bad form to connect him to That Woman, lest his wife - the possible Future Ms. President - be humiliated by the reference.

I'm not going to waste a lot of space, here, going on about how completely asinine that imbalance is. I'm not going to expound at length on the relative severity of misconduct in an affair between a young single girl who falls in love with her boss and the married powerful boss who has made promises to love and to cleave and to not sexually or romantically tempt his interns. I'm not going to detail my personal experience that tells me that the other woman is vastly less blameworthy than the oath-breaker husband.

All of that is irrelevant to the real point: in a few months of public outrage, we as a nation turned a well-rounded, talented young woman with a bright future into a one-dimensional villain. A hiss and a byword and the butt of late-night jokes.  We stripped her of the right to have good qualities because her one bad choice was forever going to trump any good quality she might try to muster.

Shame on us.

Now there is a new article about public shaming in the New York Times, and the author has a whole book coming, appropriately entitled So You've Been Publicly Shamed (available for pre-order). In the article (and, presumably, the book, from which the article is excerpted), the author details his experiences with others who were publicly shamed for relatively minor things--like a really bad joke taken out of context and spread throughout the world to the glee of trolls everywhere.

Last week at LTUE, I sat on a couple panels where I got to talk about my decade as a Public Defender. One comment I made more than once was that, when you're building a villain, you really must give him good qualities, too. Genuine ones, that any reader would relate to. I've sat across from murderers and rapists and drug dealers and all manner of society-defined Bad People, and there is hardly a one of them I didn't laugh with. Very, very few of them who didn't have family and friends in their corner, ready to stand up and swear in court that this defendant was, actually, a good person, despite the bad thing he'd done. They are fathers who love their children, mothers who will drop everything to help a friend in need, daughters and brothers and the truest of friends to someone.

And, yet, we as a society want to define everyone by their worst trait and stop the definition there. We don't want to look past that to the goodness that is always present. We bemoan our history of placing scarlet letters on offenders while gleefully slapping digital and rumor-driven red letters everywhere we look.

It's devastating in real life, and awfully boring in fiction. Mustache-twirling, top-hat wearing, love-to-be-eeeviiil villains are the stuff of melodrama. The kind we got off on in grade school. If we're going to grow up as writers or as a society, we need to be better than that.

There are some few troll-chased "villains" who are able to fight back, like my friend Larry Correia, who eventually dubbed himself the International Lord of Hate as a hilarious counter-punch to those who called him everything from a racist to a homophobe. Those who, like Larry, are firmly established on their public platforms with thousands of loyal followers are practically immune to public shaming. The shaming and thick-skin-building process may still hurt at first, but these few manage to eventually almost thrive on attempts to shame them.

Most of us aren't that famous. Most of us don't have hoards of people waiting to build us back up when someone tries to knock us down. Most of us have armies of supporters that are woefully outnumbered when the Society Hive-Mind decides we are Bad People. Most of us wouldn't survive our 15 minutes of infamy if our worst Bad Thing were ever made public.

Plenty enough lives have been destroyed by tiny black marks multiplied hundreds of thousands of times. We've had enough of the pillories and stocks and scarlet letters that deprive us all of the good that our fellow flawed humans might have done if only we'd let them.

Plenty enough fictional villains have perpetuated the fallacy that being bad definitionally excludes all goodness. We've had enough mustache-twirling and evil-for-the-sake-of-evil and antagonists that no good person will ever understand.

Let's grow up, huh? Let's fight badness by empowering "bad" people to slay their own dragons. Let's call off the wasted-earth nuclear air strikes that get launched every time someone makes a hurtful comment. Let's acknowledge that even people who hurt us badly can have qualities that any unbiased person would see as good.

Why do you think we're so addicted to the culture of shame?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Happy Valentines Day!

Tomorrow is my first Valentines Day with my new husband, Nate. We were married in December and are still trying to get used to the married-to-each-other life (it doesn't help that he was traveling for most of the last three weeks).

So you'd think that I'd be focusing on this love all weekend, right?

Instead, I'm enjoying myself with my tribe at LTUE. Because he's awesome, Nate will be joining in the fun for a little bit during the weekend... even though, as an introvert, it's not gonna be much fun for him.

He wins V-Day.

Now to try to figure out a present that will be half-comparable.

I love you, Nate!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Life, the Universe, and Everything 2015

It's that time again! Life, the Universe, and Everything is upon us once more next week, February 12th, 13th, and 14th.

This year, I'm reprising my role as Pitch Master, which basically means I get to hang out with the cool kids and boss people around. Because I'm not fond of leaving well-enough alone, I even talked most of them into expanding the format choices to include group sessions. [By which I mean I asked and they enthusiastically said yes.]

Well, except for Toni Weisskopf, Baen Editor and LTUE's keynote speaker. She's insisting on doing individual outline critiques instead.

And Peter J. Wacks, editor for Word Fire Press. He's insisting on doing a clinic on how to present a pitch.

I told them I didn't think we could handle that much awesomeness, but they were persistent.

In all my spare time, I'll also be on some panels--and I know what you're thinking, here. "What? Why is Robin Ambrose on panels when she hasn't published a lick of SFF? And that's a Very Good Question, with a pretty decent answer: I'm on three panels related to my recently-ended career as a Public Defender:

Thursday at 5:00 pm: Crime: What to get right? with Michaelbrent Collings, Eric James Stone, Al Carlisle, and Eric Swedin

Friday at 3:00 pm: Psyhology of a Serial Killer with Al Carlisle (who is the expert)

Saturday at 12:00 noon: Law Enforcement with James Ganiere and Zachary Hill

I bet you didn't even know I was a Public Defender, did you? Well, good. As it should have been. Because confidentiality. But I still know a thing or two about criminals and the criminal legal process, so LTUE is letting me near a microphone. Fun, huh? :D

I might also be on one or two other panels as a moderator (which means I have some great questions to ask, but no answers), but those are subject to change, so I won't tease you. I'd hate to have you show up and find I'm not there anymore.

So who will be there?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Ah, Freelancing

I'm new at this, so you experienced freelancers out there should bear with me if I'm painfully naive, but I was quite tickled by this "offer" I received for a freelancing job (from a list I subscribed to).
I'm seeking a writer for an ebook about an international space expedition that becomes lost in outer space. The series will be a serial (meaning it will take several ebooks to finish) and will follow this expedition as they: become lost in space, struggle to return earth, and then finally reunite with their loved ones on Earth. Typical science fiction elements will be involved with the story as the expedition will come across alien species, habitual planets, etc. The story will predominately be about the adventure, but the companionship between each of the astronauts will be largely incorporated.
Up to this point, I'm mostly just amused, if slightly appalled that someone is so confident that they can commercialize the creative process quite this far. As if good, profitable sci-fi were as simple as plugging specified elements into a basic plot with standard sci-fi tropes. I dunno. Maybe it is that simple, but my experience with talented sci-fi writer friends would suggest otherwise. If you want quality, that is. Maybe my true naivete is that I rather expect ANY producer of ebooks to want to make them GOOD ebooks.

Then the advertisement keeps going, and I realize I'm wrong.
A "simple" understanding of science fiction elements (aliens, space, etc.) is preferred for this story, but not necessary. Newbies are highly welcome (as long as you understand grammar).
Yeah... no. Simple understanding of the complex vacuum of space? Simple understanding of the possibility of alien life and how that alien life could develop in a different environment? Etc? And, the kicker: IT'S NOT EVEN NECESSARY. He'd be just as happy with someone who might have heard of Star Wars once, but never saw it. And the solicitor "highly" welcomes newbies who understand grammar. I... can't... even....

But there's more....
I'm expecting a delivery of 7 days (1 week) for the finished project and if achieved before the deadline, I'll gladly double the pay. In terms of the length, I'm looking for about 6,000-10,000 words.
6,000 - 10,000 words in a week.  With a double-pay bonus if that goal is met. (More on that later.) Let's forget about the pre-writing for a moment and pretend that the entire plot of the multi-ebook serial just comes to the chosen writer in a dream. Let's pretend that the dream included specific plot arcs that would span 6-10,000 words so that you're getting a complete mini-story in each book. Let's acknowledge that any writer who has completed NaNo or who is making a living at freelancing is very used to this sort of grueling pace, and can churn it out at that speed.

But let's also acknowledge that 90% of writing is rewriting and that, if these books are to be GOOD, 7 days is utterly insufficient to meet that goal. 7 days is enough time to create a first draft, perhaps, but first drafts Are. Not. Publishable. Or, they wouldn't be, if "Publishable" were universally synonymous with "Quality." Which, apparently, it isn't. And that's a darn shame.

It goes on:
The ideal candidate will be able to/have: -Microsoft Word (any edition) -Understand the Subjects/Genres -Writing Skills and Style (you should be able to write coherent and engaging sentences). What I expect: -The Word Count to be Met -An Engaging e-Book -Coherent, Competent Sentences -A Simple Understanding of the Subjects/Genres If you're interested, please submit an example of your work. It doesn't have to be supernatural or space oriented, but needs to show competent writing and grammatical skills.
Well, I'm an ideal candidate, then. I have MS Word, understand the genre, I'm able to write coherent, engaging, coherent (coherent seems important), and competent sentences... oh, wait. He wants engaging AND the word count met. Yeah, guess that counts me out.

But let's look at all the money I'll be turning down, shall we?
The Pay is $20. I'm looking to commission several more e-Books, so further work will be possible for those interested.
$20. For a week of constant work. Even assuming that the writer can write 1,000 words in an hour (hard to maintain, but I've done it during NaNo), this solicitation is offering to pay $20 for 6-10 hours of work. That's (pulling up my calculator....) $2-3 per hour. With the chance of doubling to $4-6 per hour if I meet the deadline, edit nothing, and turn in the sort of drivel I'd be ashamed to have my name on. Goody!
LEGAL: All rights of purchased work will belong to me.
Which is exactly as it should be. #yougetwhatyoupayfor

Please, fellow writers, don't ever let someone pay you this little for your work. Even ignoring the fact that there are freelance projects with a base pay quite a bit higher than this, don't ever undervalue your work so much that you do it for nothing.

If you're writing your own book, that you will OWN, and that you and your heirs will hold the royalty rights to forever, it doesn't matter if you never make enough on sales on that book to pay more than $2 per hour for all your work. You'll have your sales and you'll also have your book, and that's more valuable in experience and pride than quadruple what this guy is paying.

Freelance writing is honorable work, and you don't need the rights to every word you've ever written--but this guy is trying to capitalize on a writer's hard experience to turn a quick buck for himself while cheating the writer of a fair wage and the reader of the quality of work they should be able to expect. He's a snake-oil salesman looking for children to work in his sweat-shop, and I have no respect for him.

Have any of you seen scams like this?

Friday, January 23, 2015

My Identity Crisis

Boy, have the last two years been a rollercoaster of fun. In two days, I'll hit the two-year anniversary of my sudden divorce. Four days after that, I'll hit the two-month-iversary of my almost-as-sudden new marriage. [Edit: Dang, but do I suck at dates. I was married on December 19, 2014. My 2-month-iversary isn't until February 19. I just passed my 1-month-iversary on January 19th, so what I MEANT to say is "four days ago, I celebrated my 1-month-iversary...." I need more sleep. If you all will just do the dates for me from now on, that'd be great.]

A week ago today, I said goodbye to my decade-long career as a full-time Public Defender, moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, and have embarked on a new career as a full-time sorter-of-junk-in-moving-boxes, organizer-of-junk-in-closets, and motherer-of-children-who-scatter-junk... or is that just how it seems? Part time (while the kids are in school, and trusting that the boxes will wait) I'll be a freelance writer, with some law stuff training to take care of on the horizon. *Makes note to send in bar dues, just in case*

I'm also planning to really get serious about that Become Bestselling Novelist bucket-list item I've been fiddling with for years. Because I need more red carpets in my life. (Doesn't everybody?)

At the same time that I'm trying on all these fancy new hats, I'm changing my legal name (well, theoretically--the project keeps getting buried in other minutia) to Kirkham. I'm trying to figure out how to alter my scribble of a signature to make the A in Ambrose look more like a K (mostly by writing a K over the top of the A that magically appears .2 seconds after I put pen to paper, despite my best intentions to pause after Robin). (The rest of the letters are utterly illegible anyway.) I'm getting used to introducing myself as Robin Kirkham. To answering to Mrs. Kirkham and Sister Kirham. Even my kids are getting used to my new name.


Here, and elsewhere in the world where I'm a writer first and the rest of it hardly at all, I'm still Robin Ambrose. I've always loved my maiden name, and one of the silver linings of two years ago was the realization that I hadn't yet published a book under my ex-husband's name. When I go to writer's conferences with Robin Ambrose on my name tag, people think I made the name up, it's so perfect. So as much as I love and trust my new husband, Nate, I'm embracing this chance to splinter myself into separate personalities and make myself so confused that I have no idea WHO I am or WHAT IN THE WORLD I'm supposed to be doing, now. Because, fun!

6 months ago, I was a single working mother, a full-time lawyer, and a (let's face it) hobbyist writer. Starting this week, I'm a Stay-at-Home married mother, freelancer, and a serious-but-unpublished writer. The "What do you do" question just got more complicated.

Anyone else ever change just about everything about the Definition of You in one fell swoop?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What OW Can Teach Us About Building a Better Hero

There's been a lot--possibly too much--said about the Ordain Women "movement" (can we call it a movement when it's so tiny?) lately. This isn't a religion blog, but today a comment on a Facebook thread abut OW struck me. The commenter was an LDS woman who mentioned that she had two friends, who had been leaders in the young woman's program, resign their church memberships and even divorce their husbands over the controversy.

These women were demonstrably strong and, just like that, they... weren't. If we look at the church as a fantasy magic system, the antagonist just scored some major points, yes?

This got me thinking about Kaladin in Words of Radiance, Brandon Sanderson's brilliant second book in his Stormlight Archive series.

Kaladin is one of the most heroic heroes I've ever met. [Minor Way of Kings Spoiler Alert] Kaladin started as a gentle surgeon's apprentice, went to war to protect his younger brother, lost his younger brother, stayed at war to protect others who were weak, became a powerful leader, lost everything, lost everything a few more times, wound up bound to a living hell, crawled from the literal and figurative pit to lead others once again, and ended up by the end of the first book a legendary figure who had saved thousands of lives and elevated himself and his friends from dust to eye-popping influence.

If there is something you need done, Kaladin can get it done. Something killed, someone protected, a battle won, a puzzle solved, a life saved: Kaladin can do it all. Lesser men should just stand aside, for Kaladin is IT. A leader of leaders, a friend of the fallen, inspirational and awesome. 

But, as Mr. Sanderson knows better than any of us poor imitators, flawless characters are rather boring in book two. (True in fiction, true in life.)

I'm not going to spoil Words of Radiance, since the book is 1008 pages long and has been out for less than a year, but know this: Kaladin is also deeply flawed, and one main flaw prevents him from becoming EVEN MORE AWESOME than he was at the end of Way of Kings. That flaw comes this-close to destroying all the good he was trying to accomplish. Clinging to that flaw, in fact, LOST HIM a great measure of the good he had already accomplished.

Only when he overcomes that flaw can he come into his full measure of awesomeness. And. It. Is. Awesome.

Mr. Sanderson is brilliant. Lesser authors would have struggled to tear down such a paragon of all things good as Kaladin had become. His strategy, though, is rather timeless: he took Kaladin's greatest strength and then simply made Kaladin RELY ON IT. Kaladin was a great leader? What if Kaladin was unwilling to follow? Kaladin was a friend to the underclasses? What if he held the upperclasses in contempt? Kaladin was great at surviving hardship? What if he accepted hardship as solely the work of cruel fate, and took no personal responsibility in the events that shaped him?

I'll stop there: read The Stormlight Archive. You'll thank me.

Let's discuss someone who is even better than Brandon Sanderson at taking extreme strength and turning it into weakness. Someone, perhaps, who was once called the Son of the Morning, but became the Father of Lies. What would HE do if he wanted to turn our greatest strengths into our greatest weaknesses? How would he convince a strong, intelligent, faithful woman to turn her back on the power she'd embraced since birth? How would he convince others to follow her? How would he convince them all that everything they once knew to be true was flawed, rotted, and powerless?

The strong can be too strong when they rely only on their own strength.

The intelligent can become idiots when they erroneously believe themselves the masters of all knowledge.

The faithful can become apostates when their faith turns inward instead of upward.

Do you have a character in your WIP who needs to be taken down a notch or two? Have you someone in your story who hasn't quite suffered enough for true change? Perhaps you should stop building in extra weaknesses and start inflating their strengths. Tell him he's wonderful, that he's always right, and that others--especially those the character himself has always looked to for guidance--would be wise to heed his counsel. Convince her she's invincible. Whisper that she's infallible. Let her glory in the wonderous joy of being practically perfect in every way.

Then just turn them loose and watch them fall. 

Won't that be awesome? Insta-tenderized characters all set for your build-them-back-up plot lines. Wiser and humbler and far more teachable heroes ready to step onto the higher plane of powerful perfection. And all you need to do is knock them off the pedestal you convinced them they belonged on. Spectacular fall, hard rebuild, fantastic end.

Just what every writer--or human--needs.

On a more serious note, my wise friend Jared Garrett posted an excellent commentary on Facebook yesterday that basically reminded all of us that 1) the best discipline is all about RETURNING someone to grace, and 2) exulting in anyone's fall from grace is... bad. Real bad. 

Let's all be like my friend, Donna Weaver, who, while she was reading the bad-Kaladin parts of Words of Radiance, kept texting me, seeking reassurance that her beloved hero would come out right in the end. Who was so agonized over his slightly less-awesome decisions that she wanted to avert her eyes and not finish reading it at all. Who loved him too much to take joy in watching him squander his potential.

None of us have seen the endings of our real-life stories. It would behoove us all to check our judgment of others and to take careful inventory of our own strengths, lest we, like Kaladin and so many others, fall prey to the oldest trick in the book.

So what's your favorite way to tear your hero to shreds?