I Need “Real Life” In My Fantasy

This topic’s occurred to me a few times, particularly as I enrolled in the Bookcase Club subscription service for the “Strange Worlds” science fiction and fantasy box. For $15/month, Bookcase Club mails you two books in a genre you select, along with a journal (sometimes even fancy ones like Wreck This Journal). I will definitely do a post about what books I receive when they come in the mail next week. I thought it was one of the best priced book sub services, as the books price out to $6-$7 a copy, which is about what I would pay at my local bookstore.

But I do dread getting one particular thing in my box that may make the subscription less than stellar for me – high fantasy. Or epic fantasy. Or really, any fantasy that takes place in a distant, made-up, totally fabricated world that makes me learn the constitution of UnpronouncableLand before I can even get into the plot. Or the magic system. Oh, the dreaded magic system.

But Michelle! You’re a fantasy author! How can you say that?

Because I like Narnia. I like Harry Potter. I like Once Upon A Time. If we’re going with urban fantasy, I like Lost Girl and I’m intrigued by the premise of The Mortal Instruments. All of these fantasy stories use Earth characters, even if they aren’t necessarily normal or human. And most sci-fi takes place in a far flung future in which Earth exists, but is perhaps not the focus of the story. Even if it’s not explicitly stated, you can assume it’s there.

Game of Thrones (TV) is the only fully fictional fantasy world I enjoy. And it gets away with that because there is little to no magic in the series, especially in early seasons. As far as I remember, there are no elves, dwarves, trolls, etc. Most of GOT is based on Earth history, so GOT world has a sense of familiarity about it. Most importantly, the characters behave just as bawdily as real humans, instead of the weird sense of Arthurian propriety that hovers over most high fantasy. You can almost conceive that Westeros is an alternate history more than a completely new universe. Aside from the White Walkers, there’s not much that couldn’t have happened in our own history (dragons don’t count for me, as dinosaurs did exist *g*).

On the other hand, I find Lord of The Rings was far too dense and removed from reality, despite being Middle Earth. I could never get into Eragon. I never liked Redwall. I couldn’t care less about high fantasy games (I’m a Fallout girl much more than a Skyrim girl). Even when tropes are subverted, when new species are introduced, etc, I look at such books with a sense of exhaustion. I know, it’s not fair of me. I know there are probably original cool books out there that don’t involve elves and wizards and have totally pronounceable kingdoms. Maybe they’re very down to Earth and don’t even have magic – or maybe the magic is proper and makes sense instead of being there for no reason. I know. But I am tired.

Perhaps this is a sign of my waning intelligence. It seems as though I don’t want books that challenge me to keep up. Often, these are the books that are 800 pages long, and I feel they’d be half that length if the world didn’t need to be so explained. But I read postmodernism – S, House of Leaves, Infinite Jest. I’m interested in dense, challenging works. I am not interested in struggling to process or care about a world that is entirely fabricated, and that ultimately has no relatable stakes because of that. I’m often left with the question – why should I care? – when the story seems to be taking place a million miles away in a parallel dimension that never happened. Perhaps it’s the fact that I can’t suspend my disbelief that the story could be happening somewhere, in some time? I don’t know. It’s quite hard to articulate my disinterest, and it’s certainly not meant to be a bash on people who write or read this genre. I envy you, actually, and I’m struggling to figure out why I’m not one of you. I definitely don’t like pure realism, so why shouldn’t I like pure fantasy?

I am a genre bending sort of person, and I don’t like entrenching myself into any genre all the way. I can’t handle full on literary fiction, or full on historical, or full on romance. But if those genres are crossed in some way – if it’s literary fiction with a sci-fi bent, or a time travel romance, or a historical novel that steals from the thriller handbook – I’m intrigued. I think epic fantasy is what we automatically envision when we see the fantasy label, and maybe being that deep into one category is not to my taste. If you can blend a noir or a thriller or an action story with fantasy elements, like many urban/modern Earth fantasies do, you’re much more likely to have my attention.

Are you guys as picky about this as I am? Are there some subgenres you feel you should like but they fail to interest you?

Breaking The Stigma of Commercial Fiction: Why Writing “to Entertain” is Not A Lesser Aim

Recently, I picked up a copy of The Creative Writer’s Handbook from the used bookstore a sort of college textbook on creative writing. It is dense, detailed, and contains several short story and poetry samples from well-respected authors.

But in the opening chapter, that was a line that made me put the book down a second and just…stare at the wall, shaking my head. It went something like “when a writer’s goal is to encapsulate the whole of human experience, or more modestly, to entertain…”

This isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed a gentle, condescending pat-on-the-head towards those who write primarily to entertain. John Gardner didn’t even bother with formalities when it came to genre fiction, calling most types of sci-fi or fantasy “junk” in his guide, The Art of Fiction.

Over and over again, usually in writing books or writing classes or journal submission pages or perhaps even writing circles, I see the stigma attached to entertainment: If you write to entertain, you are lesser. You are less talented, you are less motivated, you are less creative. You’ll probably end up richer, because you’re a “sell out.” But you’re not an artist so much as you are a clown, serving as nothing more than a distraction to the sheep masses while the starving literary types plow through humanity’s preconceived notions and actually change the world.

I would even hazard to say that the word entertainment is portrayed shallowly in general, from television to video games, in the eyes of those who have ~better things to do~ than be entertained.

What bull.

Entertainment inspires. Entertainment saves lives. Entertainment makes us love. Entertainment connects us with lifelong friends. Entertainment makes dreams come true. Entertainment erases our prejudices. Entertainment causes social change.

How many people have changed their minds about gay marriage because of Will and Grace, or Ellen DeGeneres, or Glee? How many people have made new friends at a bar because they both liked Game of Thrones? How many actors, directors, writers, and video game designers are now living their dreams because we pay them to? How many Millenials are grateful to have grown up during the Golden Age of Disney? How would we have Lost or Battlestar Galactica or Guardians of the Galaxy if there was no Star Wars? How would we have Star Wars if there was no Seven Samurai? How many writing careers started with a teenage girl writing fanfiction? How many suicides have been averted, how many bouts of depression vanquished, how many lives enriched and given purpose because someone wanted to be alive to read the next Harry Potter book?

How many people have felt less alone because of characters they related to and loved?

To call entertainment a “modest” pursuit is dismissive and pretentious. There is a false perception that escapism is as toxic for people as high fructose corn syrup or smoking (you know the old one about TV and video games “rotting your mind,” right?). I would argue the opposite –  that escapism is as essential for the human mind as a good night’s sleep. Particularly in America, the modern human being leads an incredibly stressful life. Almost 7% of Americans, about 15 million adults, suffer from major depressive disorder. I’m assuming that’s just the people who are diagnosed. 52.3% of Americans are unhappy at work. Of course there is a place for dark, down to earth literary works – the sort of books that shed light on illness, human trafficking, social injustice, or mental disorders. Some people find it cathartic to read about their own problems, and we do need serious authors to sound the alarm on the world’s problems in order to draw visibility towards them.

Equally, I am not usually a fan of vapid entertainment, but everyone has different tastes. If someone feels their life is enriched in some way by 50 Shades of Grey, or an Adam Sandler movie, or the latest formulaic crime novel, who am I to judge?

But I think hybrid works – those that impact us on a deep level while primarily written to entertain, are probably my favorite stories. Harry Potter was certainly written to entertain, but it has deeper themes of anti-racism, anti-bigotry, self-acceptance, and feminism. You could acknowledge these themes and let them impact you, or you could ignore them and simply enjoy a story about wizards. Both make for a good read, and I appreciate the accessibility that JKR left with the reader in this regard. Stories that can appeal to those who want fun escapism, but also contain something beneath the surface for any literary types out there, are the most masterful of works in my opinion.

Literary genre fiction is also pretty great, as it aims to tell an exciting story in a beautifully written way. Although I will fight tooth and nail for entertaining stories, escapism stories, and commercial stories, I do not advocate for clunky, lazy writing. Quality writing is still a priority. Those who can adequately blend both are some of my favorite authors, including Jeff Vandermeer and Neil Gaiman.

So phooey I say to those who would degrade entertainment as a lesser form of creation. We can squabble all day about what defines art, but I can promise it doesn’t need to contain the universal bredth of human experience to qualify. Usually, people say that art should evoke some response, or emotion. And I don’t find joy or laughter or fun or suspense or social engagement to be modest responses at all.

Do Book Trailers Sell Books?

Normally I would do a Thowback Thursday, but I think that series may be played out. Plus, today I’m flailing hard over the Avengers Age of Ultron trailer (JAMES SPADER’S VOICE YA’LL), which has inspired my topic today.

This will be short, as it’s not a topic I’m widely versed in. I’ve seen book trailers on occasion, usually put out for mass market and commercial fiction. I’ve seen a few of James Patterson’s and Stephen King’s book trailers grace my television screen, but most I’ve encountered have been online. Sherrilyn Kenyon’s book trailers are often ads shown before YouTube videos. Eoin Colfer used to upload book trailers for his Artemis Fowl series, which was especially strange as his target audience was 8-13 year olds.

I think they’re a cool concept. If I was an indie author, I would 100% do a book trailer, as I’d need all the marketing I can get. I’ve actually made a trailer for Paradisa but we’re not gonna talk about that. 

But I’m wondering about the depth of this practice for traditional publishers. Are they just a gimmick, or do they actually sell books? Just Googling that question got me mixed responses from those in the industry. You may be multiplying the awareness of your book, but are you actually reaching your intended audience? Like I said with Colfer – he may be uploading his trailers, but will it reach a 10-year-old YouTube surfer? I think Patterson has the right idea by airing his ads on television, as his target audience (probably middle-aged to older people) are more likely to watch TV than to browse social media/video sites.

Have you ever read a book because you were introduced to it via a trailer? How do you feel about them? Personally, a well-produced trailer may cause me to look up the book on Good Reads. A poorly produced trailer is one I skip. Much like movies!

Author-Reader Trust: The Key To A Great Book

This weekend, I went to the library’s annual book sale. Most of the books I bought, I’d never heard of – but the synopsis looked interesting, or they dealt with topics/genres that I’m currently involved in. The only book I was curious about previously was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend + Short Stories. I like that many of Matheson’s stories are about being alone, which is relevant to my NaNo novel, and he’s just a classic pillar of sci-fi.

Anyway, the book I actually started reading was Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox. Knox is revered as an elegant author and the series has supposedly decent world-building.

I’m 40 pages in and I’m constantly editing her prose in my head. On the very opening page (of a prologue -_-), I’m like “I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE TREES. This description is awful! You’re just throwing pretty words into a run-on sentence with places and other Proper Nouns that you haven’t defined!” About three paragraphs in, she brings in a sentence with a setting’s name, a main character, what they’re doing, and some intriguing aspect of their situation, and I’m like there. Why isn’t that your opening line? Everything that came before this doesn’t matter, and THIS is your good sentence.

I have this problem with a lot of books. In fact, it leads me to abandon many these days, and almost table-flip reading entirely. While I recognize that Knox writes like a professional, I find myself overly critical of her. Why? I’ve never even heard of her. All I know is her writing in this one book. And I’m not enjoying it.

It’s not just because I write fast-paced commercial fiction. I’ve also read slow, cerebral novels I’ve enjoyed enough (like Never Let Me Go) because what they lack in action they make up for in intrigue. And there have been some recent reads that my mental editor did not mind. As much as I disliked Hazel and Gus in The Fault In Our Stars, I never mentally edited Green’s prose.  I also enjoy House of Leaves – and so far, I can’t think of anything that I would change about it. Just when you think Mark is going on some tangent about nothing for three pages, his concluding paragraph relates it all together and you’re just like “AHHHH.”

What does this come down to, really? Why can I be patient when Dashner takes his time setting up questions in The Maze Runner, but I’m desperately waiting for Knox to spell out her world in Dreamhunter? Why do I give Mark Danielewski the benefit of the doubt during his tangents, but in other books, I would skim such rants? Why can I look past the poor prose of some novels if I enjoy the characters and story? It’s because for some unexplainable, astral reason, the ‘good’ authors are the ones who gained my trust. They successfully created enough of the fictional dream – the verisimilitude – for me not to care about what rules they break.

I’ve also been reading Gone Girl. The first chapter is awful. It’s boring. It’s clunky. The prose tries way too hard, making you far too aware of the author. The narrator, Nick, is just whiny cardboard.

Then, the second chapter switches tenses, time, and narrators, and suddenly the book is interesting. I’m left wondering why this isn’t the opening chapter, because Amy’s voice is actually interesting. It’s natural. There is motion. I’m less doubtful of Gillian Flynn now. I trust her a bit more, because chapter two proved that she can write. And that’s why I keep reading.

I can’t pinpoint what makes me trust an author. In the end, I can’t say I really enjoyed Never Let Me Go or The Fault in Our Stars, but I did finish them. I finished them because the authors kept me gripped enough by….something. Some sense of trust and investment in them. So, one of my continued exercises is to figure out how readers can trust me. My main tool is a strong opening and an attempt at strong voice. I also try to be really direct. I want to give the sense that the world is deeper and broader than what is on the page, but I don’t want the reader to ask questions every second line.

In the end, you can’t please everyone. My father and my friend Greg both read Paradisa. Dad complained about the book in a very specific way – a way that made me realize he did not trust me. He questioned everything from line one, while Greg kicked his feet up and just ‘went’ with it. In the end, Greg understood the novel nearly as well as I do, and Dad was left lost and bitter about ‘the worst thing he’d ever read.’ How can one truly be ‘right’ if the other one exists?

I think we all have different expectations out of an author we trust, which is one of the primary influences on our ‘taste.’ It’s the reason we gawk at how some books were ever critically acclaimed. It’s the reason we sometimes enjoy stories that most of the population scorns. For whatever reason, those authors gained our trust, and I believe that’s the foundation for a subjectively great book.

Stop Whining About Book-To-Movie Adaptations

I’m going to see The Maze Runner tonight, and I’m sure the chorus of voices saying “it’s not as good as the book!” has already begun. Yet despite being a writer and reader, I feel there are plenty of times where movies are good, if not better, than the books. Perhaps it’s because I’m both a novelist and a filmmaker, but to me, they’re all just stories.

And we know this stems from some readers being elitist, right? That whole “I’m better than you because I read” nonsense? Even though each medium has both trashy stories and fantastic stories and NEITHER MEDIUM IS ALWAYS BETTER?

Also, Harry Potter spawned a generation of people who feel entitled to closely executed adaptations. Because let’s be real, before/during the HP craze, most adaptations used the books as a starting point and then ran in another direction with the concept (a la every Disney movie ever). I can’t think of any scene for scene adaptations before HP. But HP movies were direct adaptations, if you can look past stuff like Hermione getting Ron’s lines.

Anyway. I think people who go into book-to-movie adaptations with buckets of reluctance, or who put the source material on a pedestal, are massively overthinking this. And often, they’re just looking for something to complain about.

Yes, some movie adaptations are sub par. There’s nothing wrong with the movie Never Let Me Go…except for the fact that it’s a movie. This is one of the few stories that I advise people read the book instead/first, because the process of reading it is the best part. You’re thrown into a conversation with the narrator who assumes you know her world, and she slowly peels back the layers. The movie played it straight, as it had to, even giving away the book’s secrets in the bloody trailer.

Equally, Deathly Hallows Part 1 was a cash grab of wizards camping, so fans had a right to be irked.

And on rare occasion, literal adaptations work. True Grit the book could have been the shooting script for the Coen brothers.  But they’re the Coen brothers. They weaved trademark Coen humor into the source material, making it their own while still doing a line-for-line remake. They also picked a project that catered to their style in the first place. This is a rare accomplishment.

But sometimes the film can fix stuff about the book because books are not infallible tomes of sacredness. I love the writing and the story in The Time Traveler’s Wife, but the characters are such poorly drawn hipsters. In 2009, the movie with Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams came out…and I prefer it over the book. Sure, cutting out the pretentious weirdness made it more “mainstream,” especially because some of the novel’s crude elements vanished in the PG-13 movie. But I think it was for the better.

In the same way, I’ve seen a few people with their fingers crossed that the Mockingjay movies will “fix” some of the problems the book had – even going as far as not killing….well, you know.

More detail in the books =/= inherent quality. I’m not a huge fan of the Lord of The Rings movies, but I think they cut to the chase a lot faster than the books. Hilariously, The Hobbit has the opposite problem.  See, there’s no formula for this. Some work, some don’t. We shouldn’t generalize.

And remember how much it sucks when they stick too closely to the source material. Hey, remember Watchmen? That movie no one knows how they feel about? One of the biggest complaints is that it was too literal an adaptation. I mean, it’s a shot-for-shot remake of the graphic novel, save for that plotline about a Black Freighter. Most critics complained that Snyder was trapped by his loyalty to the source. He forgot he was making a film instead of a graphic novel with moving panels.

Movies should be an opportunity for new vision. I liked the book The Princess Diaries. I REALLY liked the movie. They’re incredibly different, and only similar in premise and a few character names. To me, that’s whatever. If I want to experience the storyline from the book, I’ll read the book. I’d be pretty bored sitting through an exact rehash in the movie theater. I like what the story became in Gary Marshall’s hands because it was surprising and entertaining.

In fact, some of the greatest movies ever made were based on books. Gone With the Wind. Wizard of Oz. Fight Club. The Shawshank Redemption. All based on books. Due to their lasting effect on popular culture, we’ve got to admit that these movies are at least as good as the source material, if not better. Back in the day, I doubt anyone scorned these films on the principle that they were adaptations, or whined that “they didn’t include my favorite scene!”

Finally, just have some perspective about how movies work.  Ender’s Game, as a flick, seemed empty compared to its source. While entertaining, the film washed away the darker, deeper themes from the book. But understandably, the studio did not want an R-rated Ender’s Game for adults. The most marketable thing to do was to release Ender’s Game as a pre-Christmas sci-fi epic for the family. Especially considering that most people read Ender’s when they’re children. For all intents, it’s a children’s book. Despite that, Disney’s animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is about as thematic as you can get in a film aimed at younglings. Books have a lot more wiggle room with content because they’re non-visual, but nudity, violence, and lust are things are nonexistent in movies that a 10-year-old is going to see (save for The Road To El Dorado which was…proof that the 1990’s were kind of weird). It might not be the most savory fact, and you don’t have to like it, but marketing concerns are something you should at least acknowledge.

Artemis Fowl fans are mad that the upcoming movie will be a combo of books 1 and 2. Even though that’s my favorite series, I ain’t even mad. They’re short books, much like A Series of Unfortunate Events. Because 2 resolves a lot of the seeds that 1 planted, I can easily see how they could be combined. I’d be less eager to combine other books in the series, but if I was the one writing the Artemis Fowl script, I’d probably do  the same thing. And unlike many readers who feel protective over their cherished books, and who feel like people who get into fandom because of the movie are “posers,” I’m psyched that millions more people may be exposed to the Fowl universe.

Overall, books have to be marketable towards readers, but movies are advertised to the general public. Due to the visual, fast-paced nature of film, we are unable to get inside the character’s heads and we gloss over some details. But often, this isn’t a huge loss. I prefer that The Hunger Games movie shows us the bigger picture than just Katniss’s perspective. And I certainly don’t mind that Peter Jackson skipped over all that Tom Bombadil stuff in Fellowship of the Ring. I see movies as a great shortcut to experiencing stories I wouldn’t waste 8 hours on (like The Maze Runner), or for sharing obscure stories with a wider audience. The key is to remember that movies are different for a reason, and that source books are nothing more than a starting point. They aren’t meant to be a stencil.