Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bad Movies Aren't All Bad

It's become a weekly ritual: every Sunday I go to the movies. It gets me away from the computer and drops me right in the middle of someone else's story. I can lose myself for a while and refill the creativity well. Plus, I just like being entertained; storytellers love stories. Some are hits, some are dismal misses, but it's never time wasted.

I admit it, I learn as much from bad movies as I do the good ones. When a movie isn't working for me, I like to sift through my memory banks afterwards to figure out why. Today, it was easy and ultimately fascinating. I walked out of the movie snapping my fingers (and scraping popcorn off my boot).

I'm a big M. Night Shyamalan fan. He won me over with THE SIXTH SENSE and secured my affections with SIGNS and THE VILLAGE. But his latest offerings have been a little thin and it took today's viewing of DEVIL to figure out what's been lost.

DEVIL was decent enough. Really, it was a million miles from awful. But compared to his previous work it was downright anemic. I can see what he's trying to achieve with his body of work, this building of modern mythologies and timeless tales. I have serious mythology love and it's an element I like to incorporate in my own stories so I'm naturally drawn to his work. But I can't help feel that he's concentrating so hard on the plot now that he's forgotten about the core of any great story: its characters.

Characters are story. It's because of them that there's any tale to tell. It's because of them that we care enough to watch or read.

Who can forget Cole, the boy in THE SIXTH SENSE, and his distraught mother, in utter despair because she can't help her son? Or the father who abandoned God in SIGNS, yet never loses faith in his own family? And the blind girl in THE VILLAGE who will do anything--anything--to save the boy she loves? I was invested in every last one of them. I sat on the edge of the theater's musty seats willing them to prevail because I cared.

Yet in THE DEVIL we have...what do we have? A group of people in an elevator, each of them guilty of some bad behavior or crime. A cop whose family was killed in a hit-and-run. A security guard whose mother told him a childhood story about the devil coming to earth to punish sinners. By all rights, the cop's plight should have induced some empathy, but I just never connected. Too many scenes involved him flirting with the forensics girl and we're just told that he's recovering from a serious drinking problem. Not exactly a character at the end of that proverbial rope. Nothing like Cole, nothing like Mel Gibson's former priest, or the girl hellbent on her sweetheart's survival.

Instead of empathy I had meh-pathy.

It wasn't until the climax that I developed sympathy for one of the characters trapped in the elevator. But by then it was too late: I already didn't care.

To really love a story, I have to care. Either that or be so entertained by what's going on that I don't care that I don't care.

So, what I took away from DEVIL was this: As a writer, it's my job to make the reader care about my characters as soon as possible. It doesn't matter how cool or twisty my plot is, if the reader doesn't give a damn about my characters then I've failed. Ideas are nothing without life breathed into them. They just sit flat on the screen or page unless interesting people live and love and lust and burn and ache and suffer in them.

I hope M. Night Shyamalan figures that out, because he's really one hell of a storyteller.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Writer Envy

It's a common thing: writers who sit around crying into their coffee about the success of others.

"S/he got a better deal."
"S/he is getting more/better reviews."
"S/he isn't as good a writer as me."
"Why not me?"

I get it, but I don't--and won't--subscribe to that kind of thinking.

I don't begrudge anyone their success. I know what kind of work it takes to create a workable schedule and stick to it. I know how hard it is to push words onto a page in some kind of fashion that's both interesting and readable. Our writing might look easy or trite or but it never is--make no mistake it's hard work.

I'm one of those weird creatures who is happy for anyone who gets a book deal. Good books on the shelves means more books for me to read. I am, after all, first and foremost a reader. My love for writing came after that first love.

I won't measure my successes (or failures) against someone else's yardstick. And my self-esteem is resilient enough that I don't need to drag someone else down to make myself feel better.

I won't do it. I won't envy others their success. Even if in time people envy me mine, I'll still be the first one to say, "Congratulations!" and mean it.

Envy only leads to misery, and I like being a happy writer.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

No Longer Counting Words

Word counts. Admit it, we all love to see those numbers climb. They are, after all, a tangible representation of progress. The higher the number, the closer we are to The End.

For too many years now, I've been a slave to those figures. Each day I've judged myself solely on how much or little I've added to the total word count, berating myself when I didn't meet that number goal, groaning because I'd have to do it all over again if I met or exceeded my magic number.

End result: I began to enjoy the have-written rather than the act of writing itself.

And you know what? That's just not working for me anymore. I want to luxuriate in the prose, write it the way I want my words to be read. I want to savor rather than slop words onto the page with the intention of fixing them in the next draft.

Yes, there are people for whom this works beautifully, who write fantastic first drafts at blazing speeds, and for a time I, too, could lay down at least functional prose in mass quantities. But writers grow and change. Goals evolve. And sometimes we must revolutionize the way we work if we're to move forward.

So I've stopped counting words.

That's not to say I'm ignoring word counts entirely. There must be forward momentum--always. But now I'm measuring my progress in other ways: a scene conquered, a plot epiphany (and really, aren't stories a series of epiphanies?), prose that pulls double duty (at least). Things other than accumulating numbers. And at the end of the day I'm a happier writer; more productive, too.

Not to say my way is right. But it's right for me. For now at least. I'm always open to evolution, and always looking for a way to climb outside the box.

So if watching the numbers is stressing you out, don't be afraid to try something else--even if it's just temporary. This isn't a one-size-fits-all gig.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Email woes

If anyone out there has sent me email at my regular address and had it bounce, you may also contact me at aadams1 at

For some reason, gmail seems to be hit and miss lately.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A (not so) subtle shift

My writing landscape is vastly different to what it was twelve months ago. Back then, I was trying to push out genre fiction (which I love to read), trying to be some mystical combination of other writers rather than just listen to my own voice.

That just wasn't working for me.

Between then and now I've spent most of hours (mostly while trying to sleep) thinking about the stories I want to tell. And what I've discovered is they're not genre at all. That's been hard to come to terms with. My whole identity as a writer has shifted as a result. Believing you're one thing when you're not is not easy.

Yes, I'm funny, but I'm a better writer when I'm not.
Yes, I can write crime, but I'm a much better writer when I don't.
SFF is my mental vacation destination; I can't write it to save my own hide.


About a year ago I started with a short story. It was a whim, meant to impress someone else. It quickly evolved into a novel that wasn't sure what it wanted to be. That half-done manuscript sat on the fence for several months debating its literary label, until one morning I opened the file, put my hands on the keyboard, and asked, "Okay, what the hell are you?"

And the words came.

And now that manuscript is out in the wild fighting for its life. I hope it puts up as good a fight as my heroine.

So (again).

I'm leaving genre fiction to the experts. They do it so beautifully. And in return I'll sit back and enjoy the stories they tell. I don't want to be them; I just want to be me.