Tuesday, 30 August 2011

‘Hate is a strong word, but I really, really, really don’t like you.’

There’s a general writer’s rule that dialogue tags are bad, and no word other than ‘said’ should follow a character speaking. The idea is that someone’s dialogue should be strong enough to stand on its own without the need to explain how it’s pronounced. Dialogue should show characterisation and allow the reader to form an opinion of that character without the author shoving their own opinions down the reader’s throat.

One such book that is guilty of dialogue tags is Twilight. I promise this isn’t going to be an attack of Twilight but more of an exercise. I’ve always had an issue with the character Jessica, Bella’s frenemy. She’s considered a bitch, right from the start, but in the reader’s introduction to her, does she ever actually do or say anything nasty? I decided to take away all dialogue tags, all exclamation marks and all italics, to let the dialogue speak for itself. Below is the result:

When Bella firsts sees the Cullens.

Bella: Who are they?

Jessica: That’s Edward and Emmett Cullen, and Rosalie and Jasper Hale. The one who left was Alice Cullen; they all live together with Dr Cullen and his wife.

Bella: They are very nice looking.

Jessica: Yes. They’re all together though – Emmett and Rosalie, and Jasper and Alice, I mean. And they live together.

Bella: That’s really kind of nice- for them to take care of all those kids, when they’re so young and everything.

Jessica: I guess so. I think that Mrs Cullen can’t have any kids though.

Bella: Have they always lived in Forks?

Jessica: No. They just moved down two years ago from somewhere in Alaska.

Bella: Which one is the boy with reddish-brown hair?

Jessica: That’s Edward. He’s gorgeous of course, but don’t waste your time. He doesn’t date. Apparently none of the girls here are good-looking enough for him.

At the front of the cafeteria line, Bella is distracted because she sees Edward for the second time:

Jessica: Hello, Bella, what do you want?

Mike: What’s wrong with Bella?

Bella: Nothing. I’ll just get a soda today.

Jessica: Aren’t you hungry?

Bella: Actually, I feel a little sick.

Jessica: Bella, what are you staring at? [a moment later] Edward Cullen is staring at you.

Bella: He doesn’t look angry, does he?

Jessica: No. Should he be?

Bella: I don’t think he likes me.

Jessica: The Cullens don’t like anybody. Well…they don’t notice anybody enough to like them. But he’s still staring at you.

Bella: Stop looking at him.

Discussing Jessica inviting Mike to a dance:

Jessica: Are you sure you don’t mind…You weren’t planning to ask him?

Bella: No, Jess, I’m not going.

Jessica: It will be really fun.

Bella: You have fun with Mike

In the cafeteria again:

Jessica: Edward Cullen is staring at you again. I wonder why he’s sitting alone today.

[Edward indicates for Bella to join him]

Jessica: Does he mean you?

Bella: Maybe he needs help with his biology homework. Um, I’d better go see what he wants.

One thing I would state is that Jessica seems there to prop Bella up- to be the admiring/jealous friend who makes Bella feel even more special by letting her know how unusual it is for Edward Cullen to take an interest in her. Which really just leads me to think poor Jessica, as every boy she’s ever fancied seems to like Bella, and that would be hard for even the saintliest of girls.

This experiment works even better with Lauren. Yeah, yeah, I know, who the f– is Lauren? (Alex reads Twilight, hilarious videos on Youtube) If you’ve read the book, or own it, or can borrow it from someone, turn to page 104 (In the British paperback version anyway) and read Lauren’s dialogue without dialogue tags. What the hell? If Lauren’s a bitch, make her a bitch; don’t just tell us that she’s acting bitchily. The result of that, (for me anyway) is that the narrator comes across as petty and unreliable and paranoid, turning every innocent sentence into something suspect.

This is definitely a post where I need people’s comments. How does Jessica come across to you? Especially if you’ve never read the book. Knowing all of the dialogue tags, it’s interesting to see if someone who hasn’t read the book will pick up on the ‘finer’ aspects of Jessica’s personality. So let me know!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

'A good novel tells us the truth about it's hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.' Gilbert K. Chesterton

Maybe I’m a spiteful, bitter, hard to impress person, but it seems to me that lots of YA (young adult) fantasy books just seem to encounter the same problems again and again and again. I say *problems* but in all seriousness these are things that other people probably love or don’t care about. I’m most likely the stereotypical old man, whining about the music that young kids listen to these days and calling it noise. Maybe I just need to get with the program. Yep. I’ve never used that expression before in my life.

But unfortunately/fortunately I am stuck in my own head, and I like the things I like and dislike the things I don’t like. So, I thought I’d write a list, (you can probably already tell I heart lists) of the top six staples of YA fantasy fiction that I Just Don’t Like. I’m also really curious to know if other people feel the same way, or if it’s just me and I should go sit in a corner.

1. My number 1 pet peeve goes to…Love Triangles. It seems you can’t open a YA book without he loves her but she loves him but he loves her…blah, blah, blah, you get my drift. My issue here is simple: apart from being an easy plot device to create tension in an otherwise harmonious relationship, no one in the triangle can come off looking the better for it. The person caught between the two, looks selfish and irresponsible at best, whilst the two fighting over the girl or boy become jealous and angry and territorial. These aren’t qualities I need or look for in my heroes/heroines. People get hurt, things get messy, and as readers are uncontrollable elements, they often end up rooting for the wrong person and get aggrieved when their favourite is left broken hearted. Oops. Another issue is when a person is supposedly never noticed until they develop a relationship with someone, and then of course, a contender has to come out of nowhere. Realism, people! Attention all authors and wannabe authors- stop making things look like obvious plot devices.     

2. Alpha males. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against a strong male character, but when he’s obsessive, controlling, jealous, has man rage and treats the girl like tissue paper half the time, like his property the rest, then I find myself rolling my eyes, and shouting “next!” It's not sexy or hot. It's frustrating and worrying. In these crazy, modern times, a girl can do anything a boy can do. Sometimes, she can even do it better.

3. Lack of interesting female characters. So you pick up a book and it’s written in first person and of course the narrator is the usual ‘I’m not pretty, no boys ever notice me’ type of girl, but wait! She moves somewhere new and a hundred boys are instantly interested in her, and the girls are, for the most part, petty and jealous. In my opinion, female-female relationships are beautiful, complex and necessary, but they are often either neglected or cheapened by stories like this. Where is the best friend that the protagonist tells everything to? Where is the girl who forces the protagonist out of her comfort zone again and again, thus leading to interesting exploits for the reader? I’m aware that some girls never have those sorts of friendships in real life, and that’s fine, but in these types of books I think it’s needed. As a girl, I’m meant to insert myself into the narrator’s shoes and pretend I'm her. It's not enjoyable to do that when it feels like she’s judging every other girl in the vicinity, whilst pretending that it’s they who judge her. If I met this character in real life, she wouldn’t want to be friends with me, so why should I now bother getting to know her? How can you write something by a girl, about a girl, and for girls, and have the narrator not like other girls? This Doesn’t Make Sense.
4. The love interest is ridiculously beautiful. It goes back to childhood rivalry; on the playground- my toy is better than yours. If the protagonist has the most insanely beautiful boyfriend or girlfriend, then they obviously win at EVERYTHING and no one can ever beat them again. I don’t want this in the books I read: I find it unrealistic, unimaginative and boring. I want people who look like those I see walking down the street. I want freckles and dodgy hair dye and misspelled tattoos and love handles. And isn't it so much more real and special when an average looking person becomes beautiful to someone else simply because they fall in love with them? A habit of mine when reading a book is trying to cast the lead roles. When someone is described as ridiculously perfect, I can’t even think of A-List stars good looking enough to play them. Think about it- even mega-huge, Hollywood celebs have quirks. Julia Roberts has a huge mouth, Robert Pattinson has those bushy eyebrows, and no one would ever describe Brad Pitt as having a neat, straight nose. No wonder people complain when books are turned into films and they think the chosen actors aren’t good looking enough to play their beloved heroes/heroines. There are probably only five people in the world good looking enough to play those parts, and who knows if they act or even speak the right language?!

5. Everyone is straight and everyone is white. We live in a diverse world, and I like to see it reflected in the books I choose to pick up. Something I think is especially common with YA and children’s fiction is that readers look for themselves in the books they read. Being a teenager is a turbulent time, one where people usually question everything about themselves and feel like no one in the world could possibly ever understand them. They should be able to not only take pleasure in escaping with a book, but also find some relief by relating to someone on those pages. The fact is, a gay teen or an ethnic minority usually has to scour the Internet for specialist areas if they want to find a piece of themselves in their fiction.     
6. Once the love story has developed, it becomes the ONLY thing that matters. All friends are forgotten, all family is irrelevant and school is an annoying irritancy that keeps the protag from their loved one. I don’t think that LOVE justifies total selfishness where a character is willing to run out on their family/dump all their friends/put everyone in danger, just because their special someone is extra cute and extra perfect. I have nothing against love stories in my YA fantasy - I enjoy them - but I don’t agree that they permit the protagonist to act like a myopic, selfish dick. It’s ok because he/she is in lurrvve. No. *Shakes head.* No it’s not. 

For all the clever, perceptive followers out there, you may have noticed that Twilight has all six of these issues. Congratulations, you win a prize, and no, it wasn’t deliberate. *Ducks as Twihards across the internet throw dictionaries at me.* Why dictionaries? Because they’re big and heavy.

Agree/disagree with the six points? Have any opinion on anything at all or just want to complain about how apathetic you are? Sound off in the comments!

Saturday, 27 August 2011

‘If all girls are like that-’ said William. ‘Well, when you think of all the hundreds of girls in the world – well, it makes you feel sick.’

So, after tearing apart a character yesterday, and saying all the things that I DIDN’T like about her, I thought I’d do a reversal today, and talk about a character that I do love. Perhaps I should warn that there isn’t a great deal of (or any?) sarcasm in this post. I’m afraid there’s less to be sarcastic about when you’re not insulting something. Hopefully this piece can stand on its own without my brilliant attempts at wit, but if you feel sarcasm withdrawal, tell me off in the comments. 

 A great character brings a story to life, transforming even an average book into one to be re-read. You know you’ve experienced a great character when you finish the final page of a story and feel a pang of sadness at the thought of no longer reading about said character’s exploits. A great character lingers with you for days, staying in your mind, in the back of your thoughts. Almost like a friend you haven’t seen in a while, you want to be in their company again.  

Whenever I think about a favourite character, my mind instantly goes to lisping, six-year-old Violet Elizabeth Bott, from the Just William series.

Just William, by Richmal Crompton, was a children’s series that spanned five decades from the 1920s, to the author’s death in the 1970s. Nearly every book is a set of individual stories containing anti-hero William Brown’s misadventures.

I loved these books as a child, but in my opinion, they get better with age. Crompton narrates with a dry humour and a keen eye for humanity’s foibles that goes right over the head of child readers but is a pleasure for adults. Whilst I think every book is worth reading, the stories that I admit to enjoying the most are the ones that include Violet Elizabeth Bott.

Violet Elizabeth is the spoilt, cosseted, only child of the wealthy Botts: a pretty little thing that looks like a porcelain doll, with blonde hair that is curled every day, and lots of flouncing outfits. ‘Violet Elizabeth was so treasured and guarded and surrounded with every care that her small pink and white face had never been known to do anything else except shine with cleanliness.’

Below is her first meeting with the eleven-year-old William.  

‘D-don’t you like me?’ Quavered Violet Elizabeth in incredulous amazement. William looked at her. Her blue eyes filled slowly with tears, her lips quivered.
‘You’re making me cry,’ sobbed Violet Elizabeth. ‘You are. You’re making me cry, ’cause you won’t say you like me.’
‘I-I do like you,’ said William desperately. ‘Honest- I do. Don’t cry. I do like you. Honest!’ 
A smile broke through the tear-stained face.
‘I’m tho glad,’ she said simply. ‘You like all little girlth, don’t you?’ She smiled at him hopefully. ‘You, do don’t you?’
William, pirate and Red Indian and desperado, William, woman-hater and girl-despiser, looked round wildly for escape and found none.
Violet Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears again.
Strangely enough, the sight of Violet Elizabeth with tear-filled eyes and trembling lips made him feel that he must have been brutal indeed. Beneath his horror he felt bewildered.
‘Yes I do,’ he said hastily, ‘I do. Honest I do.’  
She smiled again, radiantly through her tears. ‘You with you wath a little girl, don’t you?’
‘Er-yes. Honest I do,’ said the unhappy William.
‘Kith me,’ she said, raising her glowing face.
William was broken.

As well as being the queen of manipulation, Violet Elizabeth is up for anything. She is so laid back that she will happily laugh at herself when teased, enjoy becoming filthy with mud and ruining her fancy clothes, and keep up with the boys’ rougher games. For a six year old she is inordinately clever, and is easily able to outwit William and his friends and even her own parents. Anyone who knows this series at all will probably recognise her most famous line, where she convinces someone to do something because if they don’t she will ‘thcweam and thcweam ’til I’m sick.’

At the same time she is loveable and endearing, with her upbeat, sunny disposition, her loyalty to William, and because you can’t (or at least I can’t) read anything she says without laughing. I think my favourite episode of hers is where she tries to leave a ghost a ‘thauther’ of milk.

Violet Elizabeth may not be the most rounded character, but Crompton deliberately writes caricatures for humorous effect, and in my humble opinion, it works.  

I don’t know that these books are for everyone- the humour is the subtle kind, and some people might find them too old-fashioned, or even too English- but if you’re intrigued then definitely check them out. If you’ve ever read them or are now inspired to read them, let me know in the comments!   

Friday, 26 August 2011

"Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Oh Sarah-ah-ah (Sarah)...Are you saving me?" (A character study.)

No, this post is not about how much fun it is to write the name Sarah over and over, (although that is quite fun), but is actually about I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore (pen name of Jobie Hughes and James Frey.) I want to start by stating that I Did Not Buy this book, but got it for free, which makes it so much more acceptable to be caught reading it. (Maybe? Kind of? Not even a little bit??)

Warning: spoilers abound for those who want to read this book and haven't yet.

Ok, moving on. I Am Number Four is in many different ways an extremely flawed book, but this review will be focusing on my personal biggest problem, the love interest of narrator John: Sarah Hart.

Yes, that is her name. It says it all really. To get all nitpicky and deconstructionalist on you (thank you literacy theory!) that is one terrible, terrible name. Now, every Tom, Dick and Harry knows that the name Sarah is found a dime a dozen, so, if you're going to write a book, even a book completely set in the real world (which I Am Number Four is not), you should tread carefully with a name like Sarah. But in a YA fantasy/sci-fi novel? Seriously?? I mean, why not call her Mary Sue and be done with it?? And as for Hart, well, don't worry folks, it's not ironic. This girl's heart is so big she spends her holidays saving homeless kittens. 


(The above was words failing me.)

Sarah is the pancake-flattest, Mary-Suest, female-love-interest I've ever had the misfortune of meeting in print. Here's what I know about her: She's incredibly, unbelievably, astonishingly, oh-my-goddingly, up there with Aphrodite, in-your-face Edward Cullen, flat-out beautiful.  

Wait...she's beautiful? Oh! Well, thank god! Phew! I was worried for a minute there. I'll let Disney's A Swan Princess sum it up with the following 'how to offend a woman in five syllables or less' incident:

Odette: "Is beauty all that matters to you?"
Derek (genuinely baffled): "What else is there?"

Hmm. Good question. What else is there? There are a few other points to Sarah's character, but not many. Shall I make a list?!

1. She lurrvveess animals and being kind and extra nice and sweet to people, with an extra oozy dollop of saccharine and rainbow sprinkles. For the record, I am not some sort of happiness-Nazi with a vendetta against nice people, or nice characters. I attempt to be a nice person and to include nice characters in my stories. The problem is that I don't believe Sarah really is the genuinely selfless girl she's made out to be. For if she was, how she could ever let poor Sam be a friendless outcast and never bother speaking to him before John arrives?
Now, don't worry, I'm not delusional. I know this is lack of thinking on the authors' parts rather than a deliberate fakeness to her character, but unfortunately it still means that Sarah + nice = fail. *Nods head in agreement with self with what can only be described as Percy Weasley style pompousness.*

2. She is smart. There is no proof that she is smart, she never acts smart, the reader is just *told* that she is. In fact, she seems quite stupid. The only initiative she shows is when they're trapped in the school by dangerous aliens, and she says that she knows another exit. This is clearly not impressive as it is something anyone would know if they have been going to that school for longer than five minutes. But John feels a moment of pride. Pride. What a clever little girl she is! She can say her ABC in the correct order and everything. Next step- tying her own shoelaces!  

3. She's completely passive. John: "I'm an alien..." Sarah: "Well, whatever makes you happy, dear." This girl is so passive she makes Bella Swan look proactive. I can only assume Sarah spends most of her time zoned out on happy pills. 

4. She needs to be rescued a helluva lot. Big, mean ex-boyfriend hijacking her? Check. Stuck in a house fire when everyone else escapes? Check. Evil aliens after her? Check.

5. She has a rubbish sense of humour. Case in Point? John makes a completely reasonable comment and she laughs and says: "you're silly" and pokes/nudges/punches him. What is so frickin silly??
In all the time I've known John (and I've been in his head far longer than is comfortable) I've never once heard him say anything that could be understood as funny, humorous, witty or even faintly amusing.
Actually, correction, how about "I'm in love with Sarah"? I'll admit, you need an outlandish sense of humour for that to tickle you, but really, the idea that these two could fall in love is like someone insisting that a pair of newspaper dolls are in love. Actually, that sounds quite sweet. How about someone insisting that two opposite facing walls are in love? Yep. Makes No Sense.

6. Final point, I promise. She gives lingering kisses. Every single kiss *lingers.* Excuse me, rant/babbling session over now, I'm on my way to throw up.

And that is it. That is Sarah. That is literally all that I know about her.

Characters like Sarah are not only disappointing, they're also baffling. Perhaps I could understand her if she was a perfect depiction of a male fantasy, but she's clearly not. Her taste in clothing proves that. (Who wears a blouse to a house party??)

What Sarah is, in fact, is the typical result of authors who know they want a female love-interest in their story, but beyond thinking she's 'perfect', never bother to flesh out her character.

What we're left with is a pencil outline trying to impersonate a watercolour, and no one's buying it. Good characters take thought, love, back-story, and most importantly, flaws. Flaws! Yes, Sarah is flawed, but those flaws were never ones that the authors intended her to have. 

If one thing can be learned from her though, it is that she is a perfect example of a 'how not to do it' character.    

So there you have it- the end of my first 'review'. Cough*over inflated opinion*cough. I am impressed with your ability to wade through my babble/lashings of sarcasm and make it to the end unscathed. If you now have a strong need to explain exactly why I'm hideously wrong or to congratulate my brilliant deconstruction of a soggy tissue character, feel free to do so in the comments. Every comment made is loved and appreciated, even if it is simply to write a reminder to yourself to never come back here again, and I will give each commenter imaginary cookies.

Until next time boys and girls...   

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Series of Unfortunate Babbling:

So I've heard that Good Things come to those who Blog, and I thought I'd give it a try, even though I'm quaking in my Converses. Apparently, as an aspiring author, I should have been doing this, like, five billion years ago, but better late than never! At the moment I'm strangely lost for words, even though I started writing this post knowing exactly what I wanted to say. Which kinda makes this post completely at odds with its title. Oh well. Anyway, don't worry, there will be plenty of babbling, because once I get started on a topic, I don't shut up until I've dissected it and snipped at it and turned it into a pretty pattern. (I'm almost 100% sure that that metaphor didn't make sense. *Shrugs*.) What I will write about are thoughts on writing - which will be as general as it sounds, ranging from ideas on characterisation to plot to language - and reviews/over inflated opinions of books/tv programs. I will try to be funny, I will try to be clever, I will try to be insightful. I will probably fail at all three but I will try. Happy reading!