Against Professionalism

Behaving in a professional manner, for writers, is really quite easy. Professional behavior basically means writing publishable work, meeting deadlines, not plagiarizing, and not libeling anyone with one’s work. The problem with discussions of professional behavior is that this brief list really is pretty much it, and if one is not yet writing publishable work then none of the rest matters. Well, that’s no way to become a publishing guru, or to sell aspiring writers all sorts of goods and services! And so was born “professionalism” which is running especially rampant in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

Professionalism is a complex of supposedly mandatory and proscribed behaviors that makes a writer “professional” regardless of their ability to write interesting material. Recently, at a science fiction convention I met a former student of mine, and he was very concerned about…his blog. Which he does not have. He was told, however, that today professional writers must all blog, but that these blogs must not offer up controversial political opinions, or negative reviews of popular books, or “ruffle feathers.” Everything must be “politically correct” he believed—to use that famously meaningless term I try so hard to get my students to stop using. I’d told the class Ronald Sukenick’s famous dictum, Use your imagination, or someone else will use it for you over and over.  Maybe one day it’ll stick. So, what to blog about? he wondered. What does a professional blog look like, and how does it lead to publishing deals? I recommended that he concentrate on finishing his book first, and making sure it was as good as it could be.
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The Town: The Importance of Respecting Your Characters

Very real issues of craft and narrative mean it’s important to think carefully about all of your major and minor characters: it results in further complication and believability. Sometimes, too, the inability to imagine a character as fully human can derail everything–in addition to alienating your audience.

I don’t like to use movies as examples, but what the heck. I’ll make an exception because it’s such a good example: the script for The Town, a movie by Ben Affleck (script by him and Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard), fails miserably to flesh out the character of Claire Kessey, played by Rebecca Hall. The movie is supposed to be about long-time friends who are part of a bank robbing gang. Claire Kessey is a bank employee taken as a hostage and later let go. Affleck’s character (Doug MacRay), who Claire never saw, then falls for her, while his fellow bank robbers want her killed so she can’t identify them.

You could say the main thrust of the movie is on the bank robbers, their relationships, and what happens to them. But the crux of the film is Doug’s relationship with Claire, in part because it makes him do things that undermine his relationship with his friends and thus creates one of the central conflicts in the movie.

The problem is, Claire’s a cipher.

1–We don’t know anything about her friends.
2–We don’t know anything about her family.
3–We know very little about her past.
4–We have very little evidence about her personality, likes and dislikes, etc.

Even worse, Affleck et al have decided that Claire is so unimportant to the story that, after her kidnapping and release, she’s largely moved around the board simply to advance the plot. Several unlikely things happen, including…

1–Claire, despite being frightened out of her mind by the experience, seems to behave much as she did before being kidnapped, in terms of her day-to-day movements and activities.
2–Worse, she has no problem talking to a man she does not know, in a public laundromat.
3–And she has no problem going out on a date with said stranger.

Now, most reasonable people, myself included, if they’d been kidnapped recently, might feel the need to be more cautious. In such a context, I might not even want to go to the laundromat for awhile (except, Claire has no friends to speak of, and thus no one to ask for help). I sure as heck wouldn’t be fond of talking to strangers.

Is it possible Claire might be the kind of person who would deal with the situation differently than I would? The kind of person who would decide that a kind of confrontation with life, a dogged sticking to her normal routine, was the key to recovery? Absolutely! But to know that, we would have to have a much better idea of:

1–Her friends.
2–Her family.
3–Her past.
4–Her personality.

But we get none of that, apparently because Affleck thinks that the crux of the story lies elsewhere.

But the entire time I was watching the last two-thirds of the film, I could not get out of my head the fact that the foundation, the groundwork, had been so thoroughly botched that if the film had been re-contextualized as a house, it would’ve been leaning heavily to one side, with the bricks falling to the ground and the roof sliding half-off.

I was also getting angry, because in robbing Claire of her individuality, Affleck had trivialized the trauma that occurs when one’s personal space and freedom are violated in the way Claire’s were in the movie. Even worse, Claire’s actions at the end of the film betray any vestiges of self-respect the script has left her with…but that’s okay, the script seems to be telling us, because Claire’s mostly there so MacRay will seem somewhat noble and tragic…unless, like me, you’re by this point finding MacRay utterly unbearable because of his interactions with Claire. (The power dynamics of that relationship don’t bear scrutiny.)

The point here is that getting characters right is also about doing what’s right for the story, and when you get that backwards or you ignore a character or rob them of the normal human reactions that occur in the real world, you run the risk of having someone like me think what you wrote sucked.

Get a BookLife, Now!

When did you first set out on your dream to be a published author?

Just about three years ago, following the birth of my first daughter, I decided I better get my act together and starting living the dream I held in my heart. For me, there would be no integrity in raising a daughter to follow her dreams if I failed to show that I believed in the concept! Since that time, another daughter arrived along with a dog and a job outside the home. And, YES! I am a published writer of nonfiction (even penned a few short stories).

What got me that far is a set of guidelines I call  The Writer’s Five Ps (Passion, Perspective, Priorities, Process, Present-mindedness).  The Five P’s keep you focused, help you navigate through the storms that rise in life and make it possible to manage all the things that are important and special in your life without feeling burned out.

The Five Ps have kept my writing center-stage on a day-to-day basis. (For many aspiring writers, that’s half the battle). Still, I’m not quite where I want to be with my writing dream: to publish fiction.

In the pages of VanderMeer’s BookLife,  I heard my own voice call  to me:  “I want a book life, now!”

Not surprisingly, my  inner critique (The Burglar) answered, “How’s those FivePs workin’ out for ya, now?”

Contrary to Burglar’s modus operandi, I didn’t need to abandon the Five Ps. I just needed to rethink how I put them to work. BookLife helped me put the Five Ps to work strategically. Rather than just using the Five Ps to navigate my way through family life and get my butt in the chair everyday, I integrated VanderMeer’s approach with the Five Ps to put me on the path to my book life. In the three weeks since I began, I’ve done the following:

  1. wrote a stronger mission (artist’s statement)
  2. set more concrete long and short-term goals (achieved the following specific goals)
  • my website is being redesigned
  • a short story is under review for publication
  • gained clarity on plot for a stand alone novel and developed concept for 3-book series
  • secured a new column in a west coast magazine

I am a happier writer, still ranking high on the parenting chart (ask the kids) and I am more effective at change management.

I’m confident that my book will be in print or on an e-reader before the end of 2012  (I figure, if the world does end, or the great white light shines upon us, why not go out with a bang!).

You can do the same. Don’t let your inner Burglar rob you of your dream or cause you to abandon methods that have been working for you. Do use the voice of that inner critic to assess how your methods are working for you and what else you may need to get where you really want to be– to get a book life!

(Thanks, Jeff, for inviting me to share my experience as a Writing Parent on her way to getting a BookLife!) KMR

Karen M. RiderKaren M. Rider is a freelance writer specializing in holistic health and metaphysical subjects. Her interviews with visionary thinkers such as Caroline Myss and Wayne Dyer have been published in regional and national publications. Karen also contributes to The Writer magazine. She is an accomplished advertorial copywriter serving holistic /healing arts practitioners and “soul entrepreneurs.” She resides in Connecticut with her two spirited daughters and  (one very patient) husband. Karen is working on her first novel- a story of metaphysical suspense set at Gillette Castle in Connecticut.

Cynthia Ward on “Watching Avatar While White”

A huge thanks to Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward for guest blogging here at Booklifenow the past two weeks. This is Ward’s last post, and the last post from either writer, who together are responsible for Writing the Other, a book I recommend in Booklife. The following post I find particularly fascinating because of the “what-if’s” Ward explores below. Fiction tends to gain part of its power from complication and complexity—the ways in which events or character interactions lead to unexpected places. Character diversity, if not just window dressing, is one way to introduce further complexity to narrative. This is part of writing individuals rather than types. (I have to say that both Nisi and Cynthia are a lot more patient with Avatar than I am—I thought it was just flat-out awful.) – Jeff

[SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen the movie Avatar, you may want to skip this post.]

I went into Avatar knowing little about it, beyond a few accusations that it was “a ripoff of FernGully: The Last Rainforest” or “a ripoff of Dances With Wolves” or “a ripoff of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The World for World Is Forest,” and a lot of descriptions of Avatar as “so awesome, you should see it in 3D.”

Having seen Avatar, I would agree with Nisi Shawl’s take that Avatar is beautifully immersive. I haven’t been that stoned on a movie since 1982’s Blade Runner (although, when I was leaving the theatre in ’82, I didn’t trip over the stairs and reel into the walls. If someone re-releases Blade Runner in modern 3D, I suspect my head will literally burst).

I haven’t seen FernGully nor, unfortunately, have I read The World for World Is Forest, but I did see Dances with Wolves. And, yes, Avatar is an uncredited, SFX-drenched reissue of that old story (which we’ll get back to in a moment).

I also thought that writer/director James Cameron was borrowing heavily from other sources—palpably obvious inspirations I’ve rarely (if ever) heard others mention: the Dragonriders of Pern (clearly, Hollywood has finally developed the technology to bring Anne McCaffrey’s intelligent, human-bonding dragons convincingly to ‘life’) and the three major series created by Edgar Rice Burroughs: Carson of Venus, John Carter of Mars, and Tarzan of the Apes.

Burroughs’s Barsoom (Mars) series came to my mind initially because of all those multi-legged alien animals. Meanwhile, the Wikipedia description of Amtor (Burroughs’s imaginary version of Venus) might as well be a description of Cameron’s fictional planet, Pandora: “Amtorian vegetation, particularly on Vepaja, tends to be gigantic. Vepaja is notable for the enormous forests…with trees reaching into the inner cloud envelope.” If I recall correctly from my childhood reading, Amtorian forests are even the same color as Avatar’s.

However, the main reason Avatar reminded me of Burroughs’ most popular series, and the movie Dances with Wolves, was because of the way they made me feel.

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