Category Archives: POV

Crit Groups Suck I mean Rock

It was my turn. I passed out my thirty pages to the group to take home and love. I knew they would. They’d come back the next week and beg for more. The prose. The story. The insight. They’d share with their friends. The leader of the crit group (a group I paid $200 a month to be a part of) had been published—four times. She’d probably kick my submission over to her agent. I’d have publishers beating down my door, demanding I quit my day job and finish the book.

The next week I waited nervously as we went through the opening formalities. Then they pulled out their redlined thirty pages and looked at me. Not with eyes of amazement or envy, but…pity? Confusion?

“Well,” said the four-time published author, “where do I start?”

I learned a lot in the next twenty minutes. It was like prancing around the high school cafeteria, butt naked.

They wanted to know what happened to the peanuts. See, my character went on a road trip with his dad. He stopped in the gas station and bought peanuts. I never mentioned them again. They wanted to know what happened. The group leader suggested if I put it on the table, that I use it.

I sucked at POV. I hadn’t written a story but wrote about the scenes I would have watched on television, shifting camera angles back and forth. Good for television, bad for storytelling. This was the first time I learned about the concept known as Point of View.

“But beautiful imagery in the fire scene.” That coming from the four-time published author. I didn’t know what imagery was. But I had written something that I had experienced, building a campfire.

After the experience, my pride more than bruised, more like destroyed, and surprisingly with no agent deals, I about gave up writing.

Fast forward 10 years. Tonight, I just got off the phone with a phenomenal crit group. We submit1000 words each week and critique them. We probably overanalyze things, discuss word variations, plot structure, character development. The benefit of this group, hasn’t been the critiques, the multiple eyes and perceptions that catch inconsistencies or typos (like mine tonight where I wrote “her waste” instead of “her waist”).

No the greatest gift of this crit group has not been so apparent. In reading other writings as a fellow critiquer, I have to ask myself a number of questions: Why does this work or not work? Why did I misread this? What do they mean here? Why did they take it that direction? Why did they use that word? How might I have said that? Why do I love this character? Why do I enjoy this character? What made that piece great? And on and on and on.

Then, while asking the questions, developing a response that is constructive and then sharing that response with the author has helped me better understand my own writing weaknesses.

Robert Heinlein said, “When one teaches, two learn.” This my friends, is why you need a crit group. Because when all six of us teach, all six of us learn and we are getting better, I am getting better.

Here are some things crit groups have taught me.

  1. How you mention something in a story can add great significance to that something…like peanuts.
  2. If you put something on the table, use it.
  3. Good writers are not born. Everyone sucks as some stage in their writing career. If you want to be a good writer, persistence will help.
  4. DON’T PAY FOR CRIT GROUPS – even if they are a four-time published author.
  5. If you don’t like your crit group, find another. There are plenty. Maybe join two.
  6. If you’re the smartest guy in your crit group, maybe join a second (don’t necessarily quit your first because Robert Heinlein had a good point.
  7. Make the time to submit, attend, and offer feedback in your crit groups.
  8. Be consistent.
  9. Writing prompts, given by someone in the crit group is a waste of time. I’ve got plenty of ideas and too little time.
  10. Join a group that writes the same genre as you. It’s hard to get feedback on legal thrillers if everyone else is a fantasy guy.
  11. Be appreciative. They’re helping you and maybe you’re helping them.
  12. Take all feedback. If it helps, great. If not, throw it away quietly.

The Art of Miscommunication

A few years ago, at the family cabin, my wife chastised one of the kids for running past a wooden stake, topped with a pink ribbon.

“Get over here. The neighbors put up those stakes because they were tired of people going into their yard.”

This surprised me, as I knew my dad had surveyed the property in an effort to divide the lot. The stakes were commissioned by him, not the neighbor.

“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.

“Your mom.”

My mom hadn’t communicated with my dad about the survey. So my mom, in an effort to understand reality, assigned a narrative that made sense to her, along with a motive. She didn’t know about the stakes, so obviously it came from the neighbors who shared her border. But why would they do such a thing? Because they were sick and tired of her grandkids disturbing the pine needles on their property, obviously.

Had she just called the neighbors, or mentioned it to her husband, the miscommunication could have been avoided, instead the narrative she created was passed around to my wife, then my kids and i’m sure others in my extended family still think the neighbors are a bunch of pricks because of it.

Two parts in the example above, create and build tension.

  1. Using point of view, we can develop a perception of reality unique to our characters. The disparity between these perceptions are where we breed tension, with each character reacting according to their perception to a situation.
  2. Having our characters assign motive to others without understanding their perception of reality.

In Les Miserables, Fantine hates Jean Valjean because he fired her. He hadn’t, that was her perception. She was fired by a female supervisor who’d discovered her illegitimate child. The supervisor brought up the situation to Valjean, omitting some detail, and Valjean invited her to do what she thought best.

Later, after Fantine plummeted into poverty and sin, all for the noble cause of caring for her daughter, she confronts Valjean with anger, matching the hatred he must hold for her. Only, he doesn’t even know who she is and tries to help her as he would anyone in her situation. The tension explodes, becoming another inciting event for Valjean when he understands Fantine’s perception of reality, he’d fired her, his motive, he despised her for her sins. His perception of reality was quite different. Anyone could find redemption. She’d made a mistake and should hardly have to pay for it the rest of her life. In fact, God could use that mistake to bring about a wonderful miracle that was Cosette.

Later in the story of Valjean we find another miscommunication between Javert and Valjean. Javert expects to be shot for spying on the revolutionaries. Valjean volunteers to shoot Javert, not because he wanted to be free of the old prison guard, but because he wanted to save Javert’s life. This blew Javert’s mind and he vowed to continue to hunt Valjean down, which he does later, but when it comes time to arrest Valjean, his perception of reality has changed so drastically, he chooses to not live in his newfound reality and kills himself after letting Valjean go.

As a reader we can bask in the tension created by conflicting perceptions of realities from two or more characters that we’ve come to know through their point of views.

Jace KillanI live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page and learn more at www.jacekillan.com.

Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy Good?

 

Contestant: I’ll take Geek Controversies for $500, Alex.

Alex Trebek: A Smaug-sized question of cinematic taste to tongue-tie any dwarven fellowship of thirteen or less at one’s local ComicCon.

Contestant: Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy good?

Alex Trebek: Yes, well done. You are now in the lead.

The Hobbit

Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy good? Now there’s a hobbit-hole-burner for the ages, and the deeper you’ve burrowed into the gentle slope of Bungo’s figurative Hill, the more fervent your opinion is likely to be. While it’s less fashionable to impinge on the honor of Jackson’s near-hallowed Lord of the Rings trilogy, a plurality of fans have been giving The Hobbit films the side-eye since the first installment premiered. For many, those side-eyes turned to full-fledged eye-rolls by the time the credits faded on the final film two years later.

I prefer to shift to a slightly different but closely related question: was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy a good adaptation? Note that this is different than asking if it’s a faithful adaptation; as many have observed, a faithful adaption would have been… well, much shorter, it’s safe to say. It seems clear to me that Jackson wasn’t so much interested in faithfully adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel as reimagining it as an epic precursor to Lord of the Rings. I doubt there will be many dissenters to that. After all, Tolkien didn’t have the later events clearly established in his mind when he wrote The Hobbit, so the two works aren’t quite as much of the same piece as Jackson might have preferred.

Despite that, were The Hobbit films a good adaptation?

And now we get to the part where there will be more dissention. Deciding whether the films are good adaptations requires you to decide a few things about the original novel. If you have come to the conclusion that Tolkien’s novel is an untouchable classic, one of the high water marks of English literature—nay, of all literature anywhere—then the films must by definition fall short, because even the most charitable reviewer must acknowledge that the films are merely good films, not the high water mark of cinema.

But I’m not sure the book is all that and a bag of lembas bread. (I bet you didn’t know it came in bags.) Don’t get me wrong; I love the book. I have very fond memories of it, going back to my Grade Five year when our teacher guided us through the story chapter by chapter. I’ve read it several times since, and enjoyed each successive re-read.

The thing is, like many books written a long time ago, I’m not sure this book is good by current (modern) standards. Which is certainly not a problem for the book itself, because it must be judged according to its context, and The Hobbit is revolutionary in context with everything that was going on contemporaneous with its release.

But Tolkien makes some rather strange literary choices. Some might go so far as to unkindly call them shortcuts.

Let’s cast an analytic eye to the book’s structure. Bilbo Baggins is the central figure, the eponymous character, the dominating point of view for most of the novel, to the point of eclipsing the other characters with him. You’ve got Gandalf (who disappears midway through and returns only for a cameo at the end), you’ve got Thorin Oakenshield, you’ve got Fili and Kili… and as for the rest of the company (there are 15 of them in total), they are hardly mentioned.

Peter Jackson rightly points out in the supplementary materials that while this can work in literary terms, it’s impossible in filmic terms.

Not to sound too much the Jackson apologist, but he really had no choice but to flesh out the other dwarves as fully as he could, constrained by the fact that the dwarves really aren’t important; they don’t contribute much, and they don’t exert influence on the plot. They seem to have been inserted by Tolkien to serve as a bit of poetry, a literary grace note.

Tolkien was a minimalist. If a character didn’t significantly further the story, he all but erased them from the narrative. Gandalf is important, but the moment he’s not, he’s off to Mirkwood and out of sight; Thorin is a tragic figure, slouching toward his eventual demise (and redemption); and Fili and Kili are likewise destined for death. Sure, there’s Elrond and Gollum and Beorn and Smaug. They serve their purpose and exeunt stage left.

The movie can’t get away with this, so perhaps it overcorrects. Jackson gives us a bustling Hobbiton full of memorable characters. All thirteen dwarves are painted larger than life and given distinctive traits, running gags, and backstories. The small role of Radagast is writ large. Galadriel joins the fun in Rivendell, perhaps unnecessarily—and Saruman, too. The Goblin King wrests the spotlight from our heroes for an extended musical sequence (in fairness, this probably hews closely to Tolkien’s intent). We get a resplendent and scene-stealing Thranduil. Oh look, there’s Legolas! And now an all-new elven maiden named Tauriel who gets an awful lot of screen time. There’s Azog and Bolg, footnotes in the book but major villains fighting for relevance and attention on the big screen. Once we get to Lake-town, whose denizens barely register on the page, we get a host of named characters who demand motivations and personalities on their own. Did I mention Sauron, glaring at us all the while? At last, Dain rides over the hill in undercooked (overcooked?) computer-generated glory.

The oddest of Tolkien’s literary choices/shortcuts is the fact that the entire climactic battle, around which Jackson created a whole movie of its own, is played out in a few pages of exposition, told to Bilbo after he is knocked out in the opening frame. This is the best example of Tolkien getting away with something that no author today could get away with. Some would charitably call it a quirk.

My thesis is basically that Jackson didn’t have a choice but to flesh this all out. I suppose he could have fleshed it out a bit less comprehensively, and delivered two films instead of three. Maybe Galadriel and Saruman stay on the sidelines. Maybe you don’t bother to show Gandalf’s investigation of Sauron. Maybe you resist the urge to bring back Legolas. Maybe you leave out Tauriel and just accept the fact that this movie has no women in it. Maybe Lake-town gets limited only to Bard. Perhaps the extra dwarves are reduced to window dressing.

I contend that several of these choices would have been very bad choices indeed, and every fan is going to pick and choose which of them were most and least essential. Essentially Jackson didn’t pick and choose; he expanded everything, leaving on stone unturned. I don’t think it’s in Jackson’s DNA to do things halfway, and I don’t really blame him for that. (Granted, others do.)

In short, Jackson turned Tolkien’s one-man play into a 50-man ensemble, thus entirely changing the character of the story. But my god, if The Hobbit had been filmed in the same manner it was written, it would almost certainly have been the most baffling film of the modern era.

So the movie is different than the book, a wildly different experience. Is it better? No. But if you’re dead-set on adapting a strange, nigh unadaptable story like The Hobbit, you could do a lot worse. Peter Jackson didn’t give us great movies, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he gave us serviceable ones that at least hold together and stay consistent with his previous work.

And if you can’t have greatness, consistency is a pretty good consolation prize.

Taking the Brimstone and Blood Out of Horror

When it comes to writing horror a lot of readers and authors assume that the actual horror has to come from something otherworldly — vampires, werewolves, demons, etc. Otherworldly horror is cool but for some readers and authors it’s not something they enjoy. Personally, the second a demon appears in a scene I’m out. So it’s a good thing that horror is a lot more broad and versitile then that.

While the otherworldly is terrifying, the everyday is just as scary. In my opinion the otherworldly is scary because it’s the unknown. It’s unknown why they exist, why they want to harm or kill someone, and how powerful they will become if they aren’t stopped. It’ s human nature to fear the unknown which is why this works so well despite the fact that no one is ever going to be accosted by a real Swamp Thing at summer camp.

The whys may be known for the everyday threats (why a person snapped and went on a killing spree, for example) but it’s usually not known until afterward. In the moment it’s still unknown and terrifying. Add to that the fact that these are threats that actually could happen and that multiplies the fear factor. Take Silence of the Lambs. It’s not usually thought of as a horror film but Buffalo Bill and Hannibal are terrifying psychopaths. The scene where Bill’s captive discovers the bloody fingernails of previous victims in the pit? Pure horror.

Not comfortable with something that psychotic? How about this: In Joe Hill’s The Fireman (spoiler alert) the scariest people aren’t those with supernatural abilities. It’s the ordinary humans. High stress situations often bring out the worst in people and Joe highlights that in this book. The actions of the “normal” people are far more horrifying then those affected by the supernatural. Dan Wells does something similar in I Am Not a Serial Killer. In this book Dan pits a teenage sociopath against a demon serial killer. It’s a fascinating contrast! Yes, both of those examples are technically horror novels but I think that they do a marvelous job showing how the supernatural and everyday horrors can be juxtaposed to highlight the other.

How about something far more ordinary. What if your character has Alzheimers? Their memory fades in and out. As the story goes on they know less and less until they have no idea who their caregivers are. They think they’re being held against their will and try to escape but their captors catch them every time. From whichever POV you choose it’s a scary situation. The Alzheimers patient thinks they’ve been abducted while the caregiver is terrified of them getting lost in a nearby wooded area or hit by a car if they get out of the facility/house.

I feel I should mention that this type of horror should be used with care. Because you don’t have the safety of reality to reassure the reader it can linger in the mind. Also depending on the everyday horror that you use it might even overshadow the plot. It’s definitely something to be considered carefully before inserting it into your story. If that’s the exact effect you want, then perfect! But if you’re writing a light romance novel, having the villain go full Hannibal Lector on the heroine might be a bit too much. Plus it’s a good idea to at least hint at these elements being present in the blurb. A lot of real world horrors have real world survivors and the last thing any writer wants do is to unwittingly trigger a reader’s PTSD.

As terrifying as Lovecraftian horrors are, using real world horrors can make your stories far more terrifying. Whether you use a small one or a big one, it’s really useful and effective way to make your story interesting without falling into a trope.