Archive for June, 2013

I broke down

I broke down and bought Scrivener.

Don’t know why I say it like that, it seems a good investment.  Forty dollars for a whole lot of awesome.  Seriously, check this baby out at Literature and Latte.

Definitely designed with the professional writer in mind, Scrivener is mainly a massive outlining tool.  You can store your manuscript, notes, research, rough drafts, outline, character sketches, resources, so on and so forth all in one document.  The distraction free writing option is also a major bonus.  I especially like the cork board visual, but my fave thing about Scrivener would have to be the keywords.  I can label every chapter of a novel I’m working on with a keyword, like say a character name, then filter out only the chapters that have that character in it and read just those chapters, allowing me to ensure that the character’s personal story-line flows smoothly and is consistent.  Makes editing a breeze.

Yes, I’m bragging a bit about my new toy.  But seriously, only forty bucks.

I’m also psyched because I started writing a story yesterday using my new Scrivener program, of course, and I am 5,500 words into it already.  Boo-yah.

The story, for those who may or may not be interested, is about a young man who tragically loses his wife and is forced to care for their five year old son on his own, and – surprise, surprise – finds love again in the most unexpected of places, I know it sounds like so many sappy romance stories already out there but that’s because I’m giving you the bare minimum basics, there are some plot points I’m leaving out.  What can I say?  I’m not a huge sharer, especially not on works in progress, sue me.  Or not, I have no money and you have no case.

Anyhow, figured I’d tell you all about the program if you weren’t already aware.  To be honest, I’ve used cheap knock offs (read as, freebie apps) that weren’t up to par with Scrivener.  It’s worth way more than the forty, other big name programs that do less cost hundreds, but if you don’t believe me, get the thirty day trial.

Okay, done sounding like an infomercial.  Time for bed.

Fathers and Daughters

Syfy is airing a new show called Defiance, produced by Rockne S. O’Bannon, best known for creating the cult classic scifi show Farscape.  Admittedly, Defiance is not one of the greatest shows on television.  It breaks no new boundaries in the scifi genre, that’s for certain, but it’s watchable.  Entertaining, at least.

I personally enjoy Defiance because at the heart of the show is a story about a father and his daughter, and how their relationship is effected by their changing world and her search for her own identity.  Being the daughter of one very awesome father, needless to say, it resonates with me.  

I especially love the show, and the fact that many sci-fi’s are increasingly geared towards a female audience, because for me, and I assume many young girls, sci-fi was one of the few means I had for truly connecting with my father.  

This is where I’m going to detour into mildly feminist chatter, but I think it’s truly amazing the strives that have been made towards gender-equality in arenas that were once considered “male domain”, yet it’s saddening how long a ways we still have to go.

A prime example would be gaming and computers.  My father, the poor man, had three girls and no sons.  Because my mother worked odd hours, he became the designated caregiver, so we didn’t really grow up indoctrinated with the typical “girly” interests of make-up and clothes.  We grew up with my father’s interests, which included heavy doses of gaming and computers.  

While the face of gaming is changing drastically, as the idea that girls game is no longer the shocker that it used to be, there does remain a population of men in the gaming world of the mindset that girls should not be gaming and cannot possibly be hardcore.  They create deluded reasons for why a girl might be gaming, that she’s trying to impress the guys or something equally demeaning.  While it may be true that some girls game to be one of the “cool gamer chicks”, speaking as a girl who games, majority of girls actually game to game.  

Yet even worse, are the men at the opposite end of the spectrum, who turn into ravenous dogs whenever a confirmed girl enters a game, hitting on her if the game has a chat available and giving her special treatment, thus inadvertently fueling the fire of the aforementioned anti-gamer chicks community.  I’ve heard stories of women – and even men – who take advantage of this special type of chauvinistic idiot, and I’ve heard stories of women who purposely lie about or simply keep their gender hidden because, as already stated, they game to game and they want to have the same challenges in the game that the men face.

Computers, on the other hand, remain steadfast as “male-domain, no girls allowed”.  A few years back, I took a “Survey of Electronics” course, and in a class of twenty-maybe-thirty students, I was one of two women.  At one point, the department was making a video to promote the course, and the professor singled me out in class to suggest I volunteer to be in the video.  While I applaud his efforts to promote in that video that women could go into an electronics/computer science career, in a way, I’m a little annoyed at the obvious reason of why he asked me specifically, especially in front of the entire group.  I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately of how women programmers are degraded, and how it continues to be one of the most male-dominated and sexist industries to date.

For Father’s Day, my sister and I decided to do a computer build for my dad.  He’s been woefully in need of a new computer (his old one was pushing seven years, I believe) and he’d been talking about doing a build but he didn’t have the motivation to do it.  We only recently finished assembling, though we’re still waiting on a couple non-essential parts that were ordered online to come in.  

I can’t help noticing when I go to our local electronic’s store, Fry’s, that the computer hardware section is completely worked by men.  Nor does it escape my scrutinizing eye, that the majority of customers who wander into that area are, surprise-surprise, men.  Unless it’s a girlfriend or wife humoring her other half as he peruses the tech.  

This observation is, in no way, meant to accuse the company of sexist practices, but it is noteworthy in that, the most likely cause is they don’t get applications from women for that section, and obviously, they have little control over the customer demographic.  The fact is simple, women do not go into computers.  Which begs the question, why? 

As I’ve already stated, many of my interests stem from my father.  They were my means of connecting with him, and in turn, his means of connecting with my sisters and I.  We’re still not living in an equal world, though we inch closer everyday.  I think for many young girls, a large part of closing the gap and evening the playing field comes from fathers impressing upon their daughters that they can really do anything, and not simply saying the words but inviting their daughters to share in their interests, especially those once or even still thought to be “male-domain”, be it computers, gaming, cars, sports, or even, sci-fi.  

Happy Father’s Day to all the awesome fathers in the world.

And for anyone who might be interested, the specs on my father’s new build: Intel i5 4670K, MSI Z87-G45, Antec HCG 750, Corsair Force 120 gb, Corsair H100i liquid cooling system, 16 gb Patriot RAM, Coolermaster Haf XB, and Windows 8 (I tried to talk him out of it….).  We’re waiting on a nVidia GTX660Ti (I believe is what he went with) and a 3TB Seagate Barricuda. 

What Will Humans Look Like In My Sci-Fi Story?

Ran across this article: “What Will Humans Look Like In 100,000 Years”,  thought I might share.  Artist Nikolay Lamm teamed with Dr. Alan Kwan, who has a PhD in Computational Genomics, to design a few images that speculate on how humans may look 100,000 years in the future (hence, the title).  While the pictures themselves resemble cartoons, I was more interested in the reasoning behind the slight feature changes Lamm made to each picture.

Traditional sci-fi stories try to envision the future or sometimes beings from other planets. When writing these types of stories, sometimes it seems like the physiology of future peoples never changes no matter how far into the future a writer might go and extraterrestrials look strange simply for the sake of looking strange.  

Whereas, in nature, the variation in physiology that you find across species always has a reason behind it, whether good or bad.  It’s the end result of millions of years of evolution, that sees the species acting on and being acted upon by it’s environment. 

So, when designing your sci-fi world, you should consider why a person or creature looks the way that it does.  Or even, speculate on the future yourself, and how innovations technological or otherwise may effect humans.  

For good examples of authors that have done this, check out Robert Heinlein’s entire body of sci-fi work (Starship Troopers, Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land all speculate on the effects of adverse environments and technology on human physiology) or HG Wells The Time Machine.  Classics that any good sci-fi writer should’ve already read anyhow.

Today all around sucked with a small splash of Yay!

I was on the wait-list for a highly desired class next semester (osteology – yeah, everyone in my field wants to be a forensic anthropologist.  I blame Bones), and today I got the email that I was enrolled.  Which means four people I love, as much as is humanly possible to love a person I’ve never met and know absolutely nothing about beyond they go to UNLV and don’t want to learn about bones, dropped the course and brought me three credits closer to my Anthropology degree.

Can you tell I’m excited?  

Which is odd, considering now that means I have five classes (four of which are 400-level anthropology classes and that means lots of reading, lots of writing) and that four days out of the week I have to be on campus by 8, which means I have to wake up at 5:30.  Four of those classes are also on the same day, with fifteen minutes passing time.  Lunch is going to be eaten while I’m speed walking to my one o’clock class.  

I hate myself a little.  Next semester is going to hurt.  It’s worth it right?  I got to believe it’s worth it.

On Balancing Characters

(***WARNING!!!  This post may contain spoilers for the show
The Breakout Kings***)

I’ve decided Netflix is evil.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my Netflix account, but it has this nasty habit of recommending me television series that were canceled early in their airing.  I watch all the episodes made, become invested in the plot line, the characters, etc., only to reach the end (and it’s always a cliffhanger) and learn that there is no more to watch.  I swear, Netflix does this to me on purpose.

Anyhow, my most recent devastation ala Netflix was a show called “Breakout Kings”. It aired on A&E from 2011 to 2012, and was a measly 23 episodes long.  The show was alright, to be honest I wouldn’t ever recommend it to anyone.

The plotline follows  two Marshals, one is a desk-jockey looking to prove himself in the field and the other lost his badge due to a momentary lapse of judgement and hopes to regain it through his efforts, as they head up a special unit comprised of three  convicts with useful expertise as part of a work-release program.  As an added bonus, they also have an agoraphobic, socially anxious, Marshal-academy washout as a secretary.

When prisoners breakout of jail, their unit, the self-dubbed Breakout Kings, is called upon to recapture the prisoners.  In exchange, the convicts get a month knocked off their sentence.  Think, Mod Squad, except no Afros or go-go boots, and they go back to jail at the end of the episode.

The show certainly had promise, the weekly criminals were often colorful with wily escapes reminisce of the A-Team.  A huge emphasis in the stories was placed on the criminal’s motivation for running, which often led to somewhat interesting twists and turns in the plotline.  And if that wasn’t enough of a hook, each of the main characters was set up to boast a score of personal demons, past and present, that should have made for a decent five season show at best.

Unfortunately, the show also had a lot of glaring flaws from the get-go.  Most of the prison escapes were over-the-top, cartoonish at best, for example, two men murdered an obese fellow inmate so as to hide in his coffin as a means of escape.  Then, as soon as criminals got out they all seemed intent to go on an immediate killing spree.  So not only would the show have you believe that dangerous convicts escape from maximum security prisons all the time, hell, it’s almost as easy as walking right out the door, but that every criminal locked up is a complete and total anti-social psychopath.

By episode two there was already a character swap. I imagine the character didn’t score high with the audience on the pilot, which wouldn’t surprise me, the one female convict in the group a grifter that uses her feminine wiles to charm men out of information for the case? Hell, she’s already in her skivvy’s episode one!  Show might as well advertise itself as “the new punching bag for feminists nationwide”. Either that or the actress found something better to do.  Her replacement character leapt as opposite end of the spectrum as possible, the street-wise daughter of a murdered bounty hunter that could take down men three times her size in a fist fight, and yet, still ends up being the show’s sexy eye-candy.

But the most glaring problem Breakout Kings had is actually a problem I think a lot of beginning, and evidently even professional, writers have, yet don’t realize or most times recognize: the characters were all extremely imbalanced.

What do I mean by imbalanced?

Stories are about balance.  Every aspect is about interacting the elements with one another in a fluid, harmonious way to create a satisfying story.  You have to weigh conflict versus solution, hero(es) versus villain(s), victories versus losses, internal versus external, main versus minor characters, setting versus atmosphere, dialogue versus action, so on and so forth, and don’t even get me started on timing.  When one element is off-kilter, slightly over or under-weighted, it throws the entire story off.

Breakout Kings had exactly 6 main characters, but half of them could’ve been removed from the show altogether, changing nothing else, and it wouldn’t have effected at least nine-five percent of the episodes.  Let’s take a closer look at the situation, beginning with our Marshals.

As already mentioned, one of the Marshals is looking to prove himself in the field while the other is a disgraced cop that’s lost his badge and is looking for redemption.  The characters are supposed to fulfill the good-cop/bad-cop dynamic but things fall apart as the writers seemed unwilling to let one of the characters’ tough guy, rebel-without-a-cause facade slip even slightly.  While the characters butted heads  in the first few episodes, they quickly agreed to both be bad-cop, which left this viewer scratching her head wondering why we needed the two of them.

The convicts were far worse.  Each was meant to bring a unique skill-set to the table, but in the end what it looked like was one ridiculous powerhouse character, and the two token minority characters: woman and a black guy.

Dr. Lloyd Lowry, played perfectly by Jimmi Simpson, is a brilliant behavioral psychologist and former professor with a two-hundred plus IQ, meaning he knows quite a lot more than just the inner workings of the mind.  He has a gambling problem, and he attempted to pay off his debts by selling prescriptions to college students, but one of the girls overdosed and he got tossed in the slammer for 25 years.  It becomes quickly apparent that his character was the golden child of the show, he cracked most of the cases, got some of the best scenes, the last season had an overarching plot featuring a villainous nemesis out to hurt him alone, and his inner-office almost-romance with the psychologically unstable secretary, Julianne, got spotlight treatment most of the series.  He was an amazing character, but it had devastating consequences for the show’s quality, as it was painstakingly obvious that the other characters were just along for the ride.

The other convicts were Erica, as already mentioned, the daughter of a slain bounty hunter who was raised in the game, and Seamus “Shea/Sean” Daniels, though they say he was a shot-caller, he comes off as little more than your run of the mill gangster. Erica hunted down and executed five of the six men who killed her father, but it was never proven, so she got time for weapons charges.  As for Shea?  They never really get into what exactly he was convicted of, though he states at one point Dr. Lowry is serving a longer sentence.  I suppose the writers figured he was a gang-leader, that should explain itself.

Erica proved useful in running down the bad guys.  They made note on more than one occasion how fast she is.  Which is sad in and unto itself.  What skill does this character bring to the team?  Oh, her, she’s really fast.  Fast?  Yup.  Fast.  She’s also really hot, so that should bring in like a huge audience of horny middle-aged guys, right?  Seriously though, this character suffered from “writers attempting miserably to create a strong female character syndrome”.  Apparently, in this show, there are two kinds of strong women: the smart woman who uses her sex appeal to get what she wants (there were several examples amongst the criminal escapees, not to mention, the first token female character that got kicked out after episode one), or the physically strong but emotionally cut off but still willing to have sex without attachments woman.  I wanted to like this character, but she boiled down to a hot-heated idiot.  The worse moments for her character came when the neighbor moved in downstairs.  She has a couple very brief encounters with him, then explains her work takes her away for long periods and she never knows when she’ll be around so they should sleep together when they have the chance, then she makes a really stupid choice that could destroy all the hard work she’d put in to getting out of jail just for this guy.  In one fell move the writers turned her into a weak girl held hostage by her emotions and willing to throw it all away for a handsome man.  Big shock, he turns around and betrays her.

Of the characters, Shea was the most frustrating for me.  The writers never seemed entirely certain what they wanted to do with him, he never served much of a purpose, and majority of the episodes he seemed unwilling to help the team despite agreeing to the terms the same as the rest of them.  His character should’ve been one of the most interesting and useful to the unit, with his alleged connections in the criminal underworld, yet the few episodes he had opportunity to showcase those skills, he was subverted by his girlfriend getting caught and his cover being sort-of blown.  Though he allegedly ran a large criminal enterprise that spanned across most of the country before being tossed in the joint, which would’ve taken incredible social aptitude and organization, he was often just there to demonstrate Dr. Lowry’s vastly superior intellect.  Unfortunately, he was the least developed of the characters, and it seemed almost despicable some of the ways the writers treated him, almost patronizing at times.  He had moments where I thought they were going to do something better with him, but they’d turn around and just shit all over it.

Writing with multiple main characters who each have their own independent subplots is difficult.  There’s a reason most writers don’t do it.  If you’re not careful, some characters rise up into the spotlight and others fall by the wayside.  Part of the problem for Breakout Kings may have been an attempt to set themselves apart from every other cop procedural drama out there by taking elements from every one and squishing them together to create a painful clusterfuck that was chaos to watch.  Lowry was a powerhouse character that solved most of the crimes and provided the best insights, it would have been fine if the point of the show was his character solving crimes, this Lecter-esque criminal with a heavy dose of Holmes, and just a sprinkle of Dr. Bishop.  But for obvious reasons (Hannibal and Sherlock were already made into TV shows), they didn’t want to go that route, so they threw in two others but did absolutely nothing with them.  Solution could’ve been to dilute Lowry a tad and bulk up the other two.

There’s a scene in which Shea is asked some math problem, nothing fancy algebraic with formulas and letters, but not something any person can typically compute off the top of their head, and he responds that he doesn’t know, he isn’t Lowry.  It might’ve served to make his character more interesting if he did know.  Part of running any business venture, criminal or not, is crunching numbers.  It would’ve added a different insight into his character that would’ve played into later episodes, when they were backpedaling on the shit way they’d been handling him by trying to make a point that he could’ve gone far had he applied himself to more legal avenues in his life.  Instead, they chose to make the moment about pointing out how smart Lowry is and Shea isn’t.

Similarly with Erica, there were definitely moments when they could’ve made her more interesting.  In one episode, one of the Marshal’s triggers a trap, a tripwire attached to a bombs detonator.  He arms the bomb and everyone scrambles in an attempt to salvage evidence from the area and figure out how to save him.  Erica’s background is that she was brought up to be a bounty hunter.  Her father had been a law enforcement officer before he went into bounty hunting, a lot of law enforcement were military prior, it would’ve been easy to explain if she had knowledge of explosives and disarmed the bomb.  Though I’m reluctant to advocate this fully, because the moment in the episode was a great character bonding scene, showing this haberdashery of characters acting as a team for the first time in the show.  Erica does have instances where she demonstrates the skills her background gave her, though usually the way it comes about is beyond stupid.  There’s another episode that puts the team in the Adirondak mountains tracking a psych-ward escapee, bonafide crazy stalker guy as he holds an innocent children’s show host hostage.  She holds on to the information that she knows the area well and has traversed them often.  It isn’t until after they bring another convict out of jail, a survivalist that knows the mountains like the back of his hand, only for the Marshals to be forced to leave him cuffed to the truck, does she reveal that she can play guide.  It’s made all the more stupid, as they’d made a big deal about how easy it is to get lost in the Adirondak mountains, how the trails are littered with booby-traps and animals, and you need to be an expert, and she volunteers to guide them, then they split into two groups.  What?  What happened to the mountains being dangerous and you shouldn’t wander off into them without a guide?  Then, of course, she couldn’t track for shit.

But that’s a whole other can of worms I’d rather not open.  So let’s get back to the topic at hand.  You might find that you’re current piece of writing is suffering from a character imbalance.  Or maybe you’re just worried it is, but you’re not entirely sure.

Balancing characters is easy.  If you know what you’re doing.

There are a few points  to address in a character’s development that will help you fine-tune their balance in the story and you can determine if you’re hitting these points by asking yourself a few questions about each character:

1) Identify your character.  Everyone needs an identity.  Think of a character as a potato, they need you to put a face on them.  What is the characters role in the story?  What do they bring to the table?  What are their advantages over other characters (skills, “perfections”) and what are their disadvantages (handicaps, flaws)?

2) Define.  Our importance is defined by our actions.  We direct our characters, so it’s up to you to make your characters important.  Is this character integral to the overall plot?  Does she help to move things along, or is she dead weight?  Should she be helping move things along but isn’t?

3) Qualify.  Some people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  We love our characters, but if they don’t belong, it’s better for everyone to let them go.  If you remove this character does it affect the story at all?  Could you get rid of this character or condense her and others into one?

4) Value.  First impressions are relatively meaningless the more time passes.  Sometimes, we don’t see the value of a character until we’ve had time to get to know them better.  Is one character seeming to gain more spotlight than another?  Is that character supposed to have the spotlight (main character), should she be sharing (one of many main characters), or should she not have the spotlight at all (minor character)?

Once you have the answers to these questions, you can start setting about to balance the characters out inside of the confines of the story.

Do you have a character that’s more perfect than the others?  Dink them up a bit.  Give them some handicaps or give other characters more advantages.  This is especially important in balancing heroes against villains.  You never want your hero to vastly outpower your villain, but you don’t want the opposite either.  They need to be equal matches.

Character slowing down the story or confusing the plot line?  Toss him.  Often times the best thing for a story is not to add but to delete.  Getting rid of a character is never easy, we writers develop scary irrational attachments to our characters, but you know what they say, if you love something let it go.  If it doesn’t come back, it was never meant to be in your story.

Do you have a character basking in the spotlight that shouldn’t be?  Reconsider if maybe that’s where they need to be.  I’ve done this before.  My story revolved around one character, but slowly and slowly another character – oddly enough, a minor antagonist – started slipping into the spotlight until finally the story became his.  Sometimes we start a project, thinking we’re in control, but in truth, the characters are the ones telling the story and they have less control than we do of the events that unfold.  You shouldn’t fight the characters, if one of them is the star – reluctant as he or she may be – then make that character the star.

Moral of Story: I need to stop watching television shows on Netflix.  Oh look, they have Freaks and Geeks….

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