Monthly Archives: August 2013

Writing Lessons From Kick-Ass: How NOT to write a Hero.

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In today’s blog, I will be using a piece of popular culture to emphasize a point on writing, specifically writing heroes. I bring this up because of the release of Kick-Ass 2, the adaptation of the comic sequel to the comic/film Kick-Ass. Now, for those of you who might be fans of this series, I want to make clear I don’t think either the film or comic are examples of bad writing. The premise is solid, the story is solid, and I enjoy it’s more realistic take on people becoming superheroes. However, watching the film left me with mixed feelings, and I have had little interest in either medium’s version since. The reason for this is very simple- Kick-Ass is a superhero movie that simply doesn’t have any heroes in it. And while writers certainly don’t have to focus on heroic characters, they need to understand them when they do, or anything they’re trying to say with them gets lost. So why does Kick-Ass fail in the department? Here are three reasons why (note; I will only be using the first film as an example, as I have not seen the sequel at the time of this writing).

#3 The Villain is a Better Father then the Hero

Two of Kick-Ass’s most memorable characters are Big Daddy and Hit Girl, two makeshift heroes seeking revenge against gangster Frank D’amico, for falsely imprisoning Big Daddy and causing his wife (Hit Girl’s mother) to commit suicide. This is a classic revenge story, and the audience should easily be able to root for this father daughter duo. But instead, D’amico is portrayed as a more watchful and better parent to his son Chris. How? D’amico consistently puts down his son’s attempts to join organized crime, wanting him to find a better, more honest life then his father.

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“But Dad, why can’t I help you at work?”
“Because you’re not missing Harvard to dump some bodies in the East River

Big Daddy, upon release from prison, immediately set his revenge scheme into motion, training his daughter to be a brutal fighter, training her in guns, weapons, and various fighting techniques from an extremely young age (she is 11 when the film introduces her). As a result, she is desensitized to violence, focuses only on ‘the mission,’ and is basically a grizzled, hardened fighter in the body of an 11 year old. However, we are supposed to root for her and Big Daddy, who has turned his only child into an instrument of his own revenge (since we get the impression Hit-Girl was very young when her mother died, possibly too young to have many strong memories) and rewards her for her violent work.

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“Daddy, can you tell me about Mom?”
“You cripple that gangster there and I’ll see if I can tell you what color her hair was.”

Yet Big Daddy places all the blame on D’amico, even in one scene claiming that D’amico, not him, stole his daughter’s childhood. While revenge-fueled, murderous heroes like the Punisher have thrived for decades, such heroes generally work alone and do not drag others down with them. By dragging his daughter into his own revenger, Big Daddy loses any sympathy from the reader and his actions fail to have any sense of justice, because he is a lesser person then the villain he rails against. Which brings us to the next point…

#2 All the Heroes Are Driven By Revenge Or A Desire to Be Cool

Hit Girl and Big Daddy are clearly driven by their desire for revenge, but rather than using that to build them, they are limited and wasted by it. Their desire to be heroes is purely driven by personal reasons, and there is no sense they have any desire to help anyone else. They brutally go after D’amico and his henchmen, steal his money, and repeat the effort over and over, without any widening of the scope. It is totally believable that once D’amico dies, both characters would simply take his money, hang up their capes, and retire to the Bahamas, because sating their revenge is all that matters in their crusade ( In fact, that is almost what happens in the film). The same idea had Batman fans raging over the ending of the Dark Knight Rises, and it has the same problem here- it makes the characters look selfish and small minded.

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“Yeah, so I spent two years being Batman, eight years sulking, ruined my company, and left after taking down one supervillian. Least I got my parents murderer first.”

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“Wait, you kept going after you got revenge? Why?

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“Girls.”

On the flip side, the movie ends with Kickass’s actions sparking a wave of other makeshift heroes flooding the streets, ready to fight crime. Except none of them cared enough to do something before, but now that there’s a popular, Youtube promoted hero, they suddenly decided to put on costumes and go out to fight. These people are superhero ‘whiggers’- they are simply following a trend without truly understanding it, which most likely means they will stumble along, stopping some minor crimes, until they are either eliminated by the criminals or arrested by the police. And all of it can be laid at Kickass’s feet, who is worse then either side because he managed to be them both. He begins with some altruistic notions, but is basically a kid living out his superhero fantasy to feel cool. And by the end, when he is predictably beaten and tortured for his actions, he joins up with Hit-Girl, commits violent acts of revenge, and then promptly retires, leaving a whole generation of untrained heroes to tackle the villains that tortured them and slaughtered their loved ones.

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“Look, I’m sorry your brother, father, sister, uncle, and cousin were all violently murdered. I didn’t tell them to put on a suit and fight crime…”

#1 There is No Moral Code

All of the violence and selfish behavior in this film are truly symptoms of one major problem- there is absolutely no moral code. The villains are expectedly brutal and psychopathic, but the heroes are the same way. The only difference is that the heroes put on costumes and convince themselves they’re the good guys because they were wronged or they have some misguided thoughts on doing the right thing. But it never justifies mutilating henchmen or putting a child in harm’s way for your own revenge. This movie is basically watching two groups of psychos slaughter each other, and we are told to feel bad for ones in costumes. But their motivations fail because simply put, they make the Punisher, a cold-blooded killer that condones things by going after criminals, a better hero, since he works alone and goes after more criminals then just the ones that personally wronged him. And worst of all, they take the greatest misconception about superheroes and prove it true. We’ve all seen the scene where the police chief or someone in power argues that ‘vigilantes cannot be tolerated, because they’re so dangerous.” Real heroes prove them wrong, but Kick Ass and his group ARE those vigilantes we’re warned about- people who take the law into their own hands and don’t care about the consequences. And there is no greater failure for a hero then that.

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“Can we trust you?”

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“Totally.”

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“Good, cause this guy’s a real problem.”

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Genre Top 5: Songwriters

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Today Genre Top 5 is one that’s not usually associated with writing, but can lead to a great deal of inspiration- music. Now, I don’t plan to turn this into a list of my favorite bands, but rather songwriters (and their subsequent groups) that have inspired the formation of characters for me. As I’ve said in my music inspiration post, all music has its own type of character, and listening to it can allow a writer to form a person in their mind, just from the subject matter of the song. So today is a list of five extremely personal songwriters who have inspired me, and will hopefully lead you to dig through your music in hopes of creating great characters.

#5 Doug Hopkins (Gin Blossoms)
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I put this writer early on the list because of his relatively short career, but the music he created and is still maintained by the Gin Blossoms today, shows a dark, intelligent, and surprisingly tuneful mind. Hopkins is famous as the original Gin Blossoms guitarist, writing many of their early hits like “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You.” Unfortunately, he suffered from depression and alcoholism, and was eventually forced out of the band by their record label and committed suicide some time later. Ironically, his hook-filled, jangle pop songs often reflect this; beneath its sparkle, “Hey Jealousy” is a man begging an ex to just let him spend the night and try to recapture the days he threw away. Other songs like “Found Out About You” also bury darkness under a strong hook (listen to the song for a tale of a man bemoaning time wasted on an undeserving girl, but then taking a turn into possible revenge), and “Lost Horizons” is a clear reference to Hopkins’ alcoholism (‘drink enough to make this world seem new again’). The Blossoms were never able to recapture Hopkins’ ability after his dismissal, but have kept his themes, touching on regret and isolation in many songs (“Not Only Numb” “My Car”). Still, listening to the Hopkins material is a fascinating look at darkness and pain hidden behind jangling guitars and singalong hooks, and can form the basis for a character hiding their own pain in any number of ways.

#4 Bon Scott- AC/DC

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As a member of AC/DC, Bon Scott was not chosen for his lyrical depth. However, he did make for the immense character he put into his songs and roguish persona he made with them. His main appeal was his lyrical cleverness, being able to piece together phrases to great effect (“she had the body of Venus, with arms!). And while his voice brought a great deal of character to his songs, his lyrics and titles, (“Big Balls,” “Live Wire,” “Ride On,” “The Jack,” ”Highway to Hell,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,”) cemented him as a perfect pirate rogue, and a essential listening piece for anyone looking to make that kind of character come alive.

#3 Mike Ness (Social Distortion)

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One of the great underrated songwriters, Mike Ness’s catalogue is a perfect example of anger, growth, shame, love, and defiance. Listening to each album in sequence is literally watching a man grow before your eyes. Early SD songs focused on punk defiance and hatred of the privileged (“Mommy’s Little Monster” “The Creeps,”) but as Ness entered rehab for his crippling heroin addiction, his lyrics touched on regret and perhaps bettering himself (“Prison Bound,” “Ball and Chain,” “Cold Feelings”). He later branched out into the passage of time (“Story of My Life”), acceptance of faults, (“I Was Wrong,”), the difficulties of love (“Footprints on My Ceiling,” “Angel’s Wings,” “Writing On the Wall,”), while still maintaining a healthy level of defiance (“Still Alive,”). Like the best kind of music, it has grown with the audience and paints the picture of a person growing up, and learning how to hold onto what matters, like the best of characters can do.

#2 Bruce Springsteen

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As a Jersey guy, it was a given I’d have to include the Boss on this list. However, his inclusion is far from a location-based bias. Springsteen’s strength as a songwriter is his ability to craft real-life, in-depth characters in his songs. He can compose epic story songs about the boy finally making good (“Rosalita”) the loss of youth and its promises (“The River”), the hopes of the young against hard times (“Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” “Wrecking Ball,”) and how much home is something to escape from and something to find again (“Born to Run,” “My Hometown,”). Every time he writes a song, the listeners finds a touch of a person or an experience they know firsthand, and they feel themselves drawn into the realism. To quote Jon Stewart, “When you listen to Springsteen, you aren’t a loser. You are a character in an epic poem… about losers.” That common thread of realism make Springsteen’s characters people you see everyday, and as such, they are people that you relate to.

#1 Shane McGowan (The Pogues, The Popes)

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My all time favorite and most complicated songwriter. Shane McGowan, leader and songwriter of the first Celtic-punk band, the Pogues, is as much a character as the people in his songs. McGowan’s songs speak of alternating joy and misery. His songs generally have jig ready Irish music, but the lyrics are wrapped in death and rebellion (“Sally MacLennan,” “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” “The Sunny Side of the Street”). Yet when he writes a ballad or slower song, he can access the mind of an old solider and a young kid (“Pair of Brown Eyes”), his own misery growing up (“The Old Main Drag,” “Boys From the County Hell,” “Dark Streets of London,”) and the most tender, lovelorn lyrics ever committed to music (“Rainy Night in Soho,”). Perhaps nowhere is this dichotomy better realized then his greatest composition, “Fairytale of New York.” In this Christmas song, McGowan captures the realism of an old, worn out couple at Christmas time, regretting their lost years and blaming each other for their failures, yet with a small spark of love still apparent at the end. It’s a rich, memorable, realistic, and gripping tale, filled with two characters that like Springsteen, we can see everyday. But unlike Springsteen, McGowan dives into the darker underbelly, which makes his characters echo and resonate even more.

The Publishing Process: Marketing Part 4: Conventions

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In today’s marketing piece, I’m going to speak on a promotional method that has become a large part of the writer’s resources- the convention. While think of cons as massive places to debut films, TV, and comic books, there are still many smaller cons that authors can use to show off their work and gain fans and notoriety. While the Internet and social media are incredibly important for building a fanbase, cons allow for personal connections that will help to strengthen your name and help to get your book across.

The Con- What it is, How to find It, and What to do

Conventions are large gatherings, usually built around popular media that take place across the country. The most well-known is the San Diego Comic-Con, which draws fans from around the world and has become the mecca for panels on upcoming films, TV, and comic books (I personally went a few years ago, and can truly say it lives up to the hype). However, you’re unlikely to start there. Many smaller conventions take place across the country, and it is easy for writers to check into cons that are happening in their area, which are usually advertised. The Internet is your best bet, but local papers and comic shops will also help, and the closer you are to a big city, the better your chances.

When you have found a con, the next step is to get a seat there. This usually involves calling the con and getting a booth to display your work, but this can be expensive for a first time writer. A better suggestion is to find a con with an Artist’s Alley, which showcases a group of local artists/authors and is far less costly. Once you are set, you will need to promote your area, usually with posters, a display of some kind, something that will bring attention to you and your work. Make sure your display is of good quality, so that it can be reused and save you money in the long run. And of course, you will need to order copies of your book to sell. However, remember that this is your first con, and you do not want to over order. Try to make a reasonable estimate given the size of the con and how many fans you feel you can attract.

This leads to the most important part of a con- being social. You will be standing at a booth all day, with people stopping by the whole time. These are your potential fans and buyers, so you must be ready for them. Answer their questions, be friendly and sociable, and do as much as you can to appeal to them without going into salesman mode, because that will drive fans away. Hopefully, you can find that balance and use it to promote your book efficiently. I can personally relate to this being effective; at Comic-Con, I was fortunate enough to meet Brent Maddock, one of the writers of Tremors. While I did pay for an autograph, he was gracious enough to speak to me for almost fifteen minutes about Tremors rumors and the state of horror movies today. When I got home, I almost immediately went out and bought the four Tremors movies and the short lived TV series.

Final thoughts

While the Internet and social media are of far greater reach, cons offer that personal, one on one experience that bring you a greater connection with fans and help you to build your reputation as an approachable writer that fans will pay to see. And it can lead to some surprises, as I ended my day at Comic-Con playing guitar in an Irish pub with Lindsay Ellis, aka the Nostalgia Chick from ThatGuyWithTheGlasses.com (I’ll post the photos after I finally get them on file). So look for cons that will work for you; be smart, be realistic, be frugal as needed, and above all, be social and friendly, and you will build a new army of fans (though some may be dressed as Megatron. Just roll with it).

Special thanks to Derrick Fish, writer/artist of the Wellkeeper, artist for Lightrider, and con veteran, for his invaluable expertise in writing this piece.

Genre Top 5: Zombies

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This week, I was intending to continue with my Publishing series, but this particularly entry has required some additional information by an associate with greater experience. Therefore, today I will continue with my Genre Top 5, focusing on a current trend in writing- zombies. While I generally prefer zombie tales to the vampire and werewolf tales of the last few years (I’m looking at you Twilight), this doesn’t mean every zombie story is perfect. Some are little more than rip offs of classic films like Night of the Living Dead, with more gore and splatter then storytelling. What’s worse, many authors don’t try to take the idea of the zombie and infuse it with new ideas, like different settings or even humor. So I’ve list the best of the zombie novels I’ve read, which succeed because of the different takes they give the undead.

5. Hebert West, ReAnimator– H.P. Lovecraft

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I already spoke of this novel in my Horror top five, but its importance as an early tale of the dead rising makes it essential for this list.

4. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies– Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

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This was the first zombie novel I picked up, and I can say all my interest in the books come from this one tale. For literary buffs, it is an adaption of the classic Jane Austen tale, but places the Victorian characters into a minor zombie apocalypse, which has forced the five sisters to undergo intense self-defense training in the far East. However, the story never loses its Victorian feel or manner (the zombies are even referred to as ‘hungry ones’ to make things more civilized) and while Elizabeth Bennett is now resolved to slaughter the zombies of England, the book keeps intact her family’s dilemmas and her complicated courtship of Mr. Darcy. An excellent adaption that makes the classic novel easier to swallow for those not romantically inclined.

3. Night of the Living Trekkies– Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall

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A zombie story for the sci-fi crowd, this novel makes the zombie plague the result of alien parasites, who rapidly infect the crowd of a Star Trek convention in a Houston hotel. The story is filled with plenty of references for fans (the main character is named Jim Pike, an anagram of two Enterprise captains, and the chapters are named after classic and appropriate Trek episodes), and moves at a quick pace. But what truly makes it work is not just how well the references work, but also the surprising depth behind it. Pike is a Iraq War veteran dealing with severe fears from his time in war; he is terrified of taking responsibility for the lives of others, but is forced to do so (and reignite his Trekkie past) to save his sister and the few human guests left in the hotels. It is a story of personal growth mixed with phasers and brain-eating, and every aspect works brilliantly.

2. Deck Z– Chris Paulson and Matt Solomon

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A historical zombie thriller, this takes the undead aboard the most tragic ship in recent history, the RMS Titanic. Thankfully, this is not a parody of the popular movie, but the tale of a post WWI German scientist who discovers a zombie creating substance that he hides above the ship to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Unfortunately, an assassin causes the substance to leak and spread about the ship, just as the iceberg comes into view. While the concept alone will likely attract those hoping zombies will eat Celine Dion at some point, the story works because it doesn’t allow itself to delve into parody. The ship and events surrounding it are simply the background for a fast-paced story with enough historical accuracy mixed with zombie plague. Taking real figures like Captain Edward Smith and making them zombie hunters is effective, while the main characters hope to use the substance to cure disease makes him sympathetic and understandable. An excellent seafaring horror tale that James Camereon might’ve wanted to look at.

1. Apocalypse Cow– Michael Logan

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An award winning zombie tale (it is the first recipient of the Terry Pratchett Prize), it focuses on cows and other animals in the UK being infected with a zombie-esque disease that also resembles mad-cow disease. While the premise is certainly silly sounding, the story works because the author expands the idea by having other animals infected (imagine every animal in America suddenly going mad and hungering for flesh). The human characters also work wonderfully, as each one has some relation to the outbreak- a slaughterhouse worker, a rebellious vegan teenager, and a reporter looking for the next big story. Their story mixes in both humor and heartbreak as they attempt to escape to safety while saving and losing members of their families and friends. It feels like a story that’s ready to be turned into a film, and I would eagerly pay money to see that happen.

Genre Top 5: Science Fiction

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With today’s genre, I wanted to explore a realm the generally coincides with my own chosen genre of fantasy, science fiction. In fact, many people often think they two are the same genre- to be clear, fantasy is purely a realm of imagination, with elements and worlds that would never happen in the real world. Science fiction however, is based in science,; while we cannot fly to distant plants or create life from lifelessness yet, there is still the possibility that we may someday through scientific advancements. So in that sense, here are five of my favorite possible scientific scenarios to consider.

#5 Frankenstein- Mary Shelley

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Considered by many to be a horror novel (and it is truly frightening) this still functions as warning about science without morals or foresight. The doctor’s classic story is motivated by a single, unthinking urge to surpass death, largely motivated by the death of his mother. And without any thoughts to the implications, he blindly goes about abusing science to create his ‘man’, only to be repulsed and refuse to accept responsibility for his actions. While there is a spiritual side to the story, it is clearly a case of using science irresponsibly for personal desires, and trying to distance yourself from your failures, a message for any person, regardless of their life pursuits (the Dean Koontz reimagining is also a worthwhile read, as it expands on these themes using modern medical science).

#4 The Martian Chronicles- Ray Bradbury

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A collection of short stories rather then a full novel, this work details various aspects of the Earth migration to Mars. Bradbury takes the age old concept of man exploring the Red Planet, and filters it through every possible viewpoint and scenario. We see the future destruction that could cause man to leave Earth, the beings he finds on the surface of the planet, the things he might leave on Earth, and he very future of humanity. Familiar parts of society are reflected here- the forced relocation of a people, leaving behind “dangerous” materials and books, racism, and man’s failings at improving himself. But throughout it all, Bradbury keeps the material firmly grounded in the idea of fiction, which makes the book a warning about man’s failures, and the things he truly needs to leave behind before exploring the galaxy.

#3 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea- Jules Verne

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Exploring the seas, rather then space, Jules Verne used the concept of ocean exploration and the world’s greatest submarine, to tell the personal story of a man who shunned the world at large. Captain Nemo, builder and commander of the Nautilis, may save the narrator and his crew, but is clearly estranged from the world as a whole, preferring to use the incredible science and discoveries of his voyage to increase his own knowledge, and acts with extreme violence towards the people that shunned him. While science is more of a background feature in this tale, it functions as a reminder that the greatest discoveries are sometimes lost because we turn away or shun those that make them.

#2 The Invisible Man- H.G. Wells

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A tale by the godfather of science fiction, most remember it for the classic film starring Claude Raines. However, the tale itself echoes both Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde, telling the story of a tremendous scientific idea that is turned to ruin. The title character is trapped inside his achievement, and forced to work in secret to cure himself, though he is never able to succeed. His frustrations at his failures and his condition eventually push him to the brink of madness, where he performs various criminal acts and evil deeds before he is finally brought down. One of the earliest and best tales of science gone wrong.

#1 The Island of Dr. Moreau- H.G. Wells

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A masterpiece from the sci-fi godfather, this stories is one of the most tragic and frightening examples of both scientific misuse and man’s abuse of natural order. The titular doctor, rejected from the modern world, has surgically altered animals to resemble humans in appearance and intelligence. But he has also made a society where he is worshipped as a god, and he is uncaring of the pain he inflicts on the animals he experiments on. Worse still, he continues to operate because the process is imperfect- the new men slowly regress to their animal states in time. Seeing intelligent beings revert to animal instincts is frightening for people as whole because it is so easy to happen (even the narrator finds it hard to be around humans after what he’s seen). But the novel’s greatest lesson, which has been echoed in stories like Jurassic Park, stays with the reader long after the final page is turned- that just because science can do something, doesn’t mean that it should.