Expectations versus Reality in Fiction Summaries

When we read the summary on the back of a book, or in a promotion for the book, or hear someone else talk about it—we instantly form a vague picture of what we expect the book to be. Hearing about a romance prompts visions of cute banter, poetic confessions, and steamy scenes (depending on what kind of romance is described). Hearing about a serial killer prompts visions of heart-pounding suspense, creepy characters, and gory violence.

But a lot of times, what we expect isn’t what we get—or what we want. Sometimes a book surprises us for the better, becoming something we didn’t see coming but that we like even more than we could have imagined. This is often the case with stories that are original enough not to prompt a lot of expectations. But sometimes a book surprises us with a bit of disappointment—the summary that got us so excited for the story ends up not quite describing the story you get.

Often, it’s not a fault of the author, the summary, or the book. It’s about what you’re looking for, what you like, and what certain words and suggestions in the summary mean to you. For example, a fan of romance might read a summary about a team of male and female reporters and expect romance, because that’s what they like—even if the summary barely discloses more than the fact that there’s a man and a woman and they share page time. A fan of action might read a summary of a movie about a man searching for his wife’s killer and expect a revenge fantasy—even if the movie ends up being a character-driven legal drama.

That’s why I’ve always said that what draws us to a summary is a good indicator of what we truly like, sometimes even more than what we like after the fact of reading something.

For example, I want to talk briefly about the book The Night Circus. The first thing I want to say is that I really enjoyed the book; it is extremely well-written, beautifully atmospheric, original, and lovely. But I have to say that when I read it, I was a little bit disappointed. See, the first time I encountered the book was in a very brief summary in O magazine, I think, that described it as something like: “Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games as two magicians fall in love as they battle in a mysterious circus.” So what I’m picturing are action-filled magic battles in a gladiatorial circus between star-crossed lovers… That’s not exactly what the book is. But, it’s important to say, the latter part of that summary is absolutely right—it is about two magicians battling in a mysterious circus who fall in love. But it’s more literary, more character-driven, the romance is slower and not really the center of the story, and the reference to The Hunger Games especially is really off-base.

So why bring it up? Well, my excitement about what I thought that summary was going to lead to tells me that I appreciate a little bit more action and plot rather than atmosphere and poetry. Again, I really enjoyed what The Night Circus ended up being—but the book I imagined it to be… might have been more my style. So in crafting my own works, I should keep in mind what really excites me.

When a book or movie seems to pull a bait-and-switch (and I want to add it’s hardly ever the story’s fault—it’s either bad marketing or just a miscommunication), take a moment and figure out what you thought you were going to get from the story—what you wanted that you didn’t get. Sometimes it’s the other way around, where you went into something not expecting much and got pleasantly surprised—in that case, what was there that you ended up really loving?

These are great little opportunities to figure out what you really like—especially when just asking yourself isn’t always an easy option.

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The Second Draft: The Stage of Doubt

So I finally got back on the revision track, with fits and starts as is my life. Why has revision been so much harder, mentally, than writing the first draft?

I’d always thought that getting through the first draft was the hardest part—that wide open expanse of blank pages, the unknown length of time to finish, pushing through the complete crappiness. And while I did have doubts and stresses during the draft, I was able to work through it without a lot of drama.

Revision, though… Ever since I realized that what I thought could be a trilogy was just going to be a standalone, for some reason I’ve been flattened by doubts. Mostly, in a way, doubts about what else I will ever write—I think because it puts more pressure on the current project? But also because revision makes a project real. Now you are thinking about your audience in a way you couldn’t during the first draft—you are actively expecting readers and you are trying to write the best that you can.

One of the biggest things to keep in mind during revision, for me, is that perfection still isn’t possible. That’s a constant refrain during drafting, but I think it’s equally important to keep in mind during revision. You can certainly improve your writing, but you can never completely perfect it. In fact, in some instances and genres and scenes, a simpler writing style (not always lesser, but often feels a bit more bare) is the better option.

This might sound a bit blasphemous, but I was rereading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and I realized the writing was a bit… simple (mostly due to being a children’s book, I would reckon). Action was sparse, there was a fair bit of telling, and the pacing could be a bit all over the place—still completely awesome, and not in any way diminished, but not archaic poetry unmatched by man. The characters, the world, the plot—okay, you’ve got me there. But for some reason, it made me feel a little bit better somehow.

To a certain extent, you have a certain writing style and a certain talent level that you just… have. Staring mournfully at other works and wishing you could write like them is a great aspirational exercise, but it will lead to madness if you never show anyone anything you write until it matches that. And in fact, your writing could be a lot better than you even think, since you can’t ever get quite as impartial as you can with other people’s writing.

There are still parts of the story that make me cringe, parts that might never have a perfect flow or logic, and though I’m taking this very seriously as my career—it might just have to be that way. There are a lot of imperfect stories out there that still get tons of love, so why not mine? :)

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The Young Hero and the Chosen One Trope

Most people with any passing familiarity with the fantasy genre know about the “Chosen One” trope. In its most popular incarnations, like Harry Potter and Star Wars, it follows a young man with a prophesied destiny of defeating the villain (or performing some great act the villain would like to see stopped, etc.). It’s not a purely gendered trope, though; my favorite female iteration is Lyra of His Dark Materials.

Though it may have its origins in mythology and fairy tales, it has been thoroughly explored throughout the fantasy genre to the point where it has become exhausted. There is even a wealth of subversions of this trope, where the prophecy was wrong and the chosen one is useless, or it was really all about believing in yourself, etc.

As far as I can tell, the purpose of this trope is almost always to pluck a random, usually unaware, nearly always unskilled nobody from the ranks of the masses and lift them to the heights of heroism—all because of this prophecy. This is, in many ways, the Holy Grail of wish fulfillment; the “I, just little old me, plain boring me, could be a hero and I don’t even know it” wish. Sure, the chosen one has to learn skills, train, grow in strength, leadership, and bravery—and often faces numerous violent threats from the villain who needs to get them out of the way—but the only reason they’re the main character is that they are the chosen one.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this trope… but it has been done, again and again, to the point where even the merest hint of it can send a shudder down a reader’s spine. Its related cousins, which are quickly reaching saturation points as well, if they haven’t already, are the bumbling random person and the hidden skills/species person. The former is anyone who is random and unaware who happens to be in the right place/right time to gain some object or ability that makes them the center of the plot (Frodo Baggins, Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element, Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere). The latter is anyone who seems random and unaware, but discovers a hidden talent or species that they never knew they had—it’s not quite a prophecy, but it’s enough to make them special (Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, Clary in The Mortal Instruments, etc.)

So what’s the alternative? Any character who is already aware and skilled, and goes after the villain by choice and through hard work, can be a protagonist who doesn’t fall into these tropes. Or perhaps they do something that either brings on a particular ability/object or puts them in the villain’s path (I’m thinking of Fullmetal Alchemist and The Mummy here, for some reason; Star Trek is another one where the heroes’ actions are choices to take on the heroic fight).

Why bring all this up? Well, lately I’ve been wondering about young heroes—specifically, children or young adult protagonists. How can they be heroes without this trope? In some cases it can work (Fullmetal Alchemist being one), but often, the young hero simply can’t be skilled or active enough to be the center of the story without a bit of prophecy or hidden powers involved.

But I think it’s probably more the case that we just haven’t seen enough of these stories that don’t follow this trope… at least, I haven’t. There’s a certain allure to the Chosen One trope, I won’t deny that. In fact, if it weren’t so overused, I would be sorely tempted by it. I think it’s because of that fact that I am trying to find alternatives that are still satisfying.

Just my thoughts for the day. :)

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Romantic vs. Problematic Tropes

I’ve written in the past about my love/hate-to-love relationship with the romance genre. The problem is that romance novels can be so problematic—and it’s the problematic elements that are often the most fun! Take those away, and the story is much better for society… but not nearly as entertaining.

Without getting too deep into why that is (I think I discussed it here), I wondered if there might be a way to preserve some of the best (and cheesiest) romantic tropes, while keeping them from getting too problematic.

Keep in mind that what different people find “romantic” (here, in an idealized fantasy sort of sense, and meant to be “appealing”) varies widely, and so what I list as “romantic” might not be your idea of it at all. However, I took these tropes from what’s commonly found in the heroes of romance novels of the cheesiest, and often most popular, kind.

romantic v problematic

Now, any character with all of the characteristics of the left side would be patently ridiculous—and the qualities on the right side could be legitimate flaws of a character if they are addressed as such. If the hero’s jealousy or power imbalance is consistently shown to be a negative trait, and not glamorized or romanticized by the heroine, the text, or the reader, then it’s okay to use it as a source of conflict.

I suppose the idea is that you could take traits from the left and use them to make a satisfying, cheesy romance hero… as long as you keep him from developing the traits on the right. Some of the “makes her…” traits means that pretty much automatically his power/immortality/wealth/etc. will diminish her in order to accomplish a “wish fulfillment” fantasy. I’ve thought of trying to make her just as powerful or wealthy, which certainly helps to alleviate this imbalance, but you lose the sense of “the normal girl just like me who gets the amazing guy” (a sad fantasy, but a common one, for fairly obvious reasons). Making her as interesting and self-sufficient as possible in other ways is about the best you can do, and it’s really just about avoiding the lowest common denominator at that point.

Is there a way to write a fun, cheesy romance that isn’t problematic? Is there a way to appeal to all that awful internalized sexism that makes us fabulously independent women still want to be swept away by a possessive billionaire barbarian—without reinforcing the worst elements of that very fantasy?

I’m not sure. But I think this could be a start. :)

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Social Anxiety and Decision-Making

Someone who has never dealt with anxiety (or any other mental illness) may not fully understand just how difficult it can be to go against the anxiety-based instincts and thought processes ingrained into your mind. Just identifying which thoughts and feelings are coming from anxiety, and which are coming from your own personal preferences and personality can be nearly impossible—sometimes I’m not even sure there is a difference to be found.

And yet, quite often, people expect you to make decisions as if your anxiety were not a factor—and if you do choose something to “cater to” your anxiety, it’s seen as a wrong decision, a weakness, a failing.

To juxtapose a different example, if someone were to tell you that they were choosing not to run a marathon because their struggle with cancer made them tired, it would be almost ridiculous to tell them, “Come on, just do it anyway. You’re not trying hard enough.” And the reason that it sounds ridiculous is because cancer can’t be helped, and it can’t be cured or even alleviated by just trying.

…Exactly. There is a pernicious and unfortunate stigma attached to mental illnesses (or difficulties/struggles, in more mild cases) that they can be “gotten over” or “pushed through” if you just try hard enough. It creates a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, atmosphere of blame around a person choosing to do something (or more commonly, not do something) because of their illness. Like it’s their fault that they can’t just decide not to struggle with it, and be “normal.”

There is some room for negotiation here. Encouraging someone to seek help with a professional or even medication isn’t always a bad thing—though it should be approached with caution, and their decision should be respected if it’s not what you would do. And, most importantly, therapy or medication is not an instant or even an eventual guarantee that someone will be able to “get over” their mental illness whenever they need to… just like treatment for cancer or other physical challenges doesn’t guarantee the person will be able to go run a marathon the next day.

I think we are programmed to try to help someone who we think is struggling, so we try various suggestions and motivational positive thinking. In and of itself, it’s a kind gesture. But if it doesn’t work, or the person is not in the right place to receive or act upon it, you can’t blame them for it. When their decision is affecting your life, then do what you have to do for your own health and happiness (creating distance, choosing differently, etc.)—but when it’s their life alone? Then you just have to let them make their own decisions, even if you think they’re the wrong ones.

But have some sympathy and understanding for people who are making these decisions because they have to—for their health, their happiness, and their survival. Sometimes making the “wrong” decision (such as not going after a certain job, or leaving a relationship, or choosing not to socialize) is the right decision for them, at this time, for whatever reason. Just because that reason is anxiety or mental illness doesn’t make it any less valid of a reason.

Let people make decisions for their own health and happiness how they see fit—and try not to judge, berate, or blame in the guise of encouragement.

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Confession

This post has been a long time coming (which sounds a lot more dramatic than it needs to be; what can I say? Writer).

The first couple months of this year, I was low. I don’t know what it was, although I think the majority of it was dissatisfaction at my job and fear for the future. I also hadn’t written in forever, and worried that I never would.

I applied to grad school, got in, and prepared for a non-writing life.

Then my birthday happened. I had originally prepared a post that explored my psyche—I’m posting it here (birthday post), because I do actually think it’s a good peek into where my head is always at, even if it’s a bit whiny and entitled (what else do you expect from me?).

But a funny thing happened on the way to the posting… I woke up on my birthday feeling different. I felt hopeful. So I wrote a teeny spontaneous posting of hope, of renewed determination.

And the next time I went into work, I asked to switch to a different job (with less pay and less hours). My boss informed me it would be seasonal, and would end at the end of the summer—I took it anyway.

I essentially quit my job with six months notice.

At the time, I hadn’t written words in years, I had no idea ready to go, I had no clue whether I would ever even be able to write. But it was all I ever wanted, and I wasn’t happy at my job and was going nowhere, and I figured if I’m ever going to do it, do it now.

I hoped to maybe be starting a draft by the time my job ended. I told myself if I was still in the same place, spinning from idea to idea with nothing, I would start looking for a new job by the end of the summer. Instead, I ended up writing a whole novel in two weeks in July. In a lot of ways, my drastic plan to quit my job to write without having written anything actually worked—I wrote, in a way I never had before. The fact that since then it’s been an emotional roller coaster doesn’t actually matter. I wrote a book, my dream.

And today is the last day of my job.

I didn’t want to write about the fact that I had already quit before now because… well, I have a lot of mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, I’m proud of myself for taking the gamble and pursuing my dreams full-time. On the other hand, I realize I come from a place of privilege and ignorance that allows me to do this—and it might end badly, with me crawling back for whatever job I can get. I also realize that people every day achieve their dreams safely and smartly while in the midst of a real job, and who am I to think I don’t have to do that?

I don’t know. I’ve faced a lot of weird looks and confused questions when I explain that yes, I quit my job; no, I’m not going to get another one; and what I’m going to do is “write.” That’s okay; I’m not following the conventional path.

These kinds of stories, the “quit my job to follow my dreams” stories, sound really good when they work. They inspire us to do the same. We don’t hear the ones that fail…

I don’t know yet which side I’ll end up on—maybe my story will be more cautionary than inspirational. But that fear is not going to stop me from taking the risk, gambling it all, trying my best.

Living the dream.

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Should We Ever Listen to Writer’s Block?

Some say writer’s block is a myth. Perhaps they’re right.

But I believe that difficulty in creating is found in artists of all kinds, and it takes a multitude of forms. At its most basic core, a “block” as I see it is the overall or underlying feeling of wanting to create—but the immediate feeling of not wanting to create (or being unable to).

Why, when all we do is talk about our dreams and passions, do we sit down and not want to write?

Sometimes it’s not knowing what to write, or exactly how to write out what we have in mind. For matters of inexperience or uncertainty, pushing through is often the only option—trusting in subsequent drafts, trusting in the learning process. This can be scary and may not always result in finished products, but when you want to write and just don’t know how, you just have to try things.

But what about when you don’t want to write?

See, I have always wanted to be a writer, but I often don’t want to actually write. This disconnect is either just my particular manifestation of a block, in the form of apathy, or it is a more serious indicator that my creativity was not meant for writing books.

Which I would sadly and reluctantly believe, if I hadn’t written a book—and enjoyed it! What happened? Did I just happen upon the one idea in the universe I could actually write? The right character, setting, plot? Or did I just manage to push through a block like so many others face, and once I got going, it started to flow?

This has been my struggle in trying to write something else… just to see if I can. But it’s like twisting a Rubik’s cube, trying this angle or that, this character or that, this plot type or that, over and over until I lose all interest and chuck it across the (mental) room. I can come up with static scenarios and characters that interest me, but they’re like a movie poster, at most a trailer—not a movie. Not a story.

I’m complaining about this struggle as part of the journaling process, even though I think it’s a problem I have to work through on my own. It won’t stop me from editing my original project to the best of my ability, and seeking to share that project in whatever way I can. If nothing else, I have written one book, and I love it.

I’m just not sure what it means for my creativity and my life if I can’t write another one. Or what it means that I have to keep trying so hard…

Do I dare to follow my peculiar stunted version of creativity into the unknown, creating what I want even if I can’t do much with it? Or is it better to force my wayward creativity to stay on the track of the conventional, working at it like a professional?

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