Building a Unicorn

Over the past year or so I’ve bought or been given unicorns by friends.

    

Just writing that statement makes me laugh because it sounds so ridiculous—or would have if you and I were talking on the phone and you did not see the above photos. It sounds like, “Yes, I own some unicorns. They’re parked out back.”

Lately, I’ve been crocheting a unicorn for a little girl’s unicorn-themed birthday party. The pattern was designed by ChiWei at OneDogWoof. You can find her blog here.

First, you crochet the head, then the ears, and the alicorn (what the horn was called way back when).

Next comes the body, which takes almost twice as long as the head, then the legs and hooves (both thankfully crocheted in one piece).

   

Lastly, you have to crochet the tail (made of multiple curlicues) and cut strands of yarn for the mane. I chose this yarn. A unicorn must have a rainbow tail and mane.

   

Once all of the pieces are crocheted, I have to build the unicorn—at least that’s what I think of the assembly process, which involves a lot of whip stitching to keep the pieces together.

It’s sort of like the process of writing a story with a unicorn as a character. Okay. I see that look. You’re thinking these processes are very different. But character building of any sort involves putting pieces together: characteristics of people you know, characteristics from your imagination; quirks of your character that affect relationships with other characters; dialects shaped by the setting; etc.

I have loved unicorns since I was a kid. I wrote a fairy tale about unicorns probably twenty years ago for my own amusement. But that was then and this is now. When I made the decision to include unicorns in a more recent novel, I did some research.

Maybe you wonder why I would bother. Aren’t unicorns pretty standard? Though they come from the mythology of many countries, they all seem to heal with the horn on their head and seem ethereal. Well, the thought of writing about a “typical” unicorn, one like cream floating on a breeze, offering a healing touch without saying or doing anything else, was not very inviting. I wanted to write about unicorns that had more personality.

I read books by Diana Peterfreund who has a killer unicorn series for young adults. Not killer in the slang sense of “That dress is killer,” but in the sense of “those unicorns kill people.” You can find details about it here.

I also read this series (photos below), which has more books than just the ones shown here. I love one snippy warrior unicorn character who demanded vows of service from people in exchange for assistance. So much for giving away free stuff like healing. I love a feisty unicorn.

   

Well, I’d better get back to getting the mane situated on this unicorn. It’s going to take awhile. (The unicorn might look small on the photo. But it is about 15 inches tall.)

What do you think of unicorns? Do you like to read stories about them? Are you indifferent to them? Please share your thoughts below.

Rampant book cover from Goodreads. Other photos by L. Marie.

The Look of a Leader

Last weekend, I saw Black Panther (directed by Ryan Coogler). The phrase kingly bearing came to mind as I watched Chadwick Boseman play the titular character.

Don’t worry. I won’t give any spoilers about the film. This post isn’t so much about the film as it is about the phrase I mentioned above.

Dictionary.com has this definition of kingly:

stately or splendid, as resembling, suggesting, or befitting a king; regal

Not that you needed that term defined. I looked it up, because I thought of the preconceived ideas many of us have about how kings/queens or other significant leaders should look and act—what we think “befit[s] a king.”

When you think of a king/queen (fictional or nonfictional), do any of the following adjectives come to mind?

• Decisive
• Intelligent/Skilled
• Charismatic
• Bold
• Honorable
• Tall/Attractive
• Wise

They do in my head. T’Challa of Wakanda (Boseman’s character, the 1966 creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) fits all of the above. But he is a fictional king. So why, I asked myself, do I have the idea that a person with a “kingly bearing” fits those adjectives (or at least most of those)? Probably because of Saul, Israel’s first king. Check out this description, which I found in 1 Samuel 9 (in the Bible):

There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people (vv. 1-2, ESV).

A month ago, I watched a 2006 PBS documentary on Marie Antoinette, written and directed by David Grubin. Marie Antoinette, as you know, was married to Louis XVI of France. But the historians interviewed in the film probably would not have used most of the adjectives in the list above above to describe Louis XVI. Biography.com had this to say about him: “He was introverted, shy and indecisive, a lover of solitary pleasures such as reading and metalwork.”

Louis XVI of France when he was the Dauphin of France.
By Louis-Michel van Loo – Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4936896

There are many other kings in history who don’t fit the mold either. I’m sure you can think of several whose tyranny or abdication of leadership to more forceful individuals made them a blight on history. But whenever I inject a king or a leader equivalent to a king into a fictional story, I have the image of a Saul or a T’Challa. (And yes I know that Saul was not considered an ideal king. But he had that “kingly bearing.”)

Watching the movie and thinking about my views on “kingly bearing” made me realize that I need to go beyond preconceived ideas when I create characters. It’s not enough to have a character “look the part” (i.e., merely having traits borrowed from other similar characters), which can make that person seem cliché. He or she needs to be fully realized—warts and all.

Kitty knows that she has the look of a leader. Don’t let the cupcake fool you.

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther photo from trends44.com. Kitty photo by L. Marie.

Beneath the Surface

Lately, when I’ve heard people talk about the movies they’ve seen, invariably I’ve heard phrases along these lines:

• Stunning visuals
• Bad script
• No character work
• Script okay, but not memorable
• Rich in cinematography, but dialogue poor

The last comment really resonated with me, because I love dialogue. I’ve memorized whole sections of dialogue from movies like The Princess Bride and Moonstruck. Not so with the movies I’ve seen lately. In fact, I can’t think of a single line of dialogue from any of the movies I’ve seen in the last four months. This is not to say that I disliked those films. They were very enjoyable.

As you know, dialogue and characterization go hand in hand. Dialogue can reveal a character’s motives and help move the plot along. Good dialogue can be fraught with tension.

I brought up dialogue, because I’m reminded of some feedback I received on a chapter I’d written, which centers around a family dealing with a crisis. The friend who’d read the chapter mentioned that she wanted to feel worried about the main character, but didn’t. While she complimented the writing, the scene just didn’t have enough tension. I later stumbled upon an article online that helped me realize why that scene was so troublesome.

In the article, “What Can You Learn from David Mamet About Adding Subtext to Your Script?” Justin Morrow mentioned this:

In all good drama, no one says what they want. . . [D]ialogue (or conversation, depending on what plane of reality you happen to be inhabiting) is all in the subtext, the hidden motivations and secret engines that drive our interactions.

The author went on to talk about Mamet’s screenplay for the movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, a 1992 movie adaptation of Mamet’s award-winning 1984 play. But what really caught my eye in that article (which you can find here), is this quote by Ernest Hemingway (sorry, David Mamet):

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

In my scene, the characters said what they meant (i.e., that they were angry or hurt), because I thought directly stating what was going on created tension. But the scene lacked subtext-—those simmering undercurrents that let you know there is more to a scene than meets the eye.

The following excerpt is from “The Light of the World,” a short story by Hemingway.

When he saw us come in the door the bartender looked up and then reached over and put the glass covers on the two free-lunch bowls.
“Give me a beer,” I said. He drew it, cut the top off with the spatula and then held the glass in his hand. I put the nickel on the wood and he slid the beer toward me.
“What’s yours?” he said to Tom.
“Beer.”
He drew that beer and cut it off and when he saw the money he pushed the beer across to Tom.
“What’s the matter?” Tom asked.
The bartender didn’t answer him. He just looked over our heads and said, “What’s yours?” to a man who’d come in.

You can infer by the bartender’s actions that he has a low opinion of the narrator (Nick) and Tom. Though the dialogue seems sparse, I felt the tension of this scene, because of what the bartender didn’t say.

If I had written that scene, I probably would have had the bartender show his disdain by saying something mean or sarcastic immediately. But I love the fact that Hemingway didn’t do that. He showed the tip of the iceberg and let the reader infer that there was a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Does every conversation have to be as subtle as the one Hemingway wrote? No. But considering the subtext can make your dialogue memorable.

What was the last movie you saw or book you read that had memorable dialogue or a scene of tension that you thought the author/screenwriter handled well? What engaged you about that dialogue or scene?

Glengarry Glen Ross movie poster from movieposter.com. Subtext image from theatrefolk.com. Dialogue image from clipartkid.com.

Hey, What’s So Funny? Or Not

I saw Thor Ragnarok, a movie directed by Taika Waititi (left photo), recently.

  

Loved it. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is always a-peel-ing.

 

Ya get it? A-peel-ing? Banana peel car? Wuh-wah. Ba dum bum.

After having seen Thor, I finally got around to watching some YouTube reviews of it. One reviewer said something that reminded me of feedback I received about one of my manuscripts: that some of the jokes didn’t land. Yet the director of Thor is laughing all the way to the bank these days, since the film is a huge hit.

Which got me to thinking about humor and how subjective it is. I felt bad at first when I was given the feedback about the humor (or lack thereof) in my story. But then I had to be honest. No one has ever said to me, “You should have a career as a stand-up comedian.” I wasn’t even voted Class Clown in elementary school! (Perhaps you already guessed that from the banana pun earlier in this post, especially if you didn’t know what that car was. Did you at least chuckle out of pity?) I’m too self-conscious to tell jokes well. Knowing that, when I write anything, I don’t usually have the mindset of “I must insert a joke here” (with the exception of the banana thing earlier; you see how that went). Though I love humor, I write what comes naturally to me, rather than “Let me see what jokes I can add.”

I look at comedians like David Sedaris, Wanda Sykes, and Tina Fey with awe, because they seem to naturally do something I can’t do. But that’s okay. Each of us has a gift we can rock. (I thought about making a pun here based on the photo of Tina Fey below, since it is a photo of her in 30 Rock. But instead, I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead.)

   ’

NBC Photo: Mary Ellen Mathews

Getting back to Thor, I laughed a lot while watching it. But it reminds me that I don’t have to try to be something that I’m not—a comedian.

In an interview with The Independent (which you can find here), Taika Waititi said something that relates to what I’ve learned:

The lesson to be learnt, Waititi explains, is . . . “I should just be real and present, and just be me.”

Truer words were never spoken.

Has anyone told you that you’re naturally funny? Know any good jokes? Feel free to share them in the comments below.

Taika Waititi from film-book.com. Thor Ragnarok image from apocaflixmovies.com. Chris Hemsworth as Thor from craveonline. Tina Fey from fanpop.com. David Sedaris from anglophilereads.blogspot.com. Wanda Sykes from imbd.com. Other photos by L. Marie.

Maybe a Different Strategy, Hollywood?

The other day, my sister-in-law emailed an article to me on young adult movie adaptations, and asked for my opinion. If you’re curious, you can read the article here. In case you don’t feel like doing that, the article discusses the fact that Ascendant, the fourth film in the Divergent series, will debut on TV, rather than in theaters. Why? Because . . .

The humbling of “Ascendant” mirrors the fate of the YA genre as a whole, which has been experiencing diminishing returns in recent years.

divergent-movie-2014-poster-imagesIn other words, the films have not made as much money in the U.S. as filmmakers would have liked, though they grossed over $700 million worldwide (which is nothing to sneeze at).

So what do I think about this? Well first, I take issue with the phrase YA genre, since YA—young adult—is a market, rather than a genre. There are several genres aimed at that market: science fiction, fantasy, contemporary realism, historical, romance—you name it.

But the article brought up an issue that should have been obvious from the get-go: milking two movie adaptations out of one book. Since the Harry Potter franchise did this to great success, other filmmakers wanted to cash in on that strategy. Note the words cash in. But Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a 784-page book with more than enough material to cover two films. The filmmakers were very faithful to the source material, which was beloved by fans. Note the word beloved.

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The article brought up the less than stellar success of Part 2 of Mockingjay (a partial adaptation of the third book of the Hunger Games trilogy) and The Divergent Series: Allegiant (a partial adaptation of the third book of the Divergent trilogy). Mockingjay is a 391-page book by Suzanne Collins. Allegiant, written by Veronica Roth, has around 592 pages. Note: All of the page counts are based on the hardback versions, which I read. The fans were divided on Mockingjay. And many disappointed fans took to the internet to rant about Allegiant. So I don’t know why anyone is surprised that fans would be lukewarm about seeing two films adapted from a book they disliked.

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But, you say, movies are made to attract new fans. Each movie should be its own animal. Good point. But the article brought up still another issue: the sameness of the movies. If you hear about movie after movie adapted from a dystopian series involving plucky teens fighting back against an oppressive government while falling in love with each other, wouldn’t you think they all sounded the same if you knew nothing about the book series from which they sprang?

I’d hate for movies based on YA books to stop being adapted simply because some have tanked. Perhaps if filmmakers moved beyond choosing only one or two sub-genres to adapt or avoided stretching the plot of one book over two or three movies, they might discover gold.

This has nothing to do with the above, but is it my imagination, or does the trunk of this tree look like the sideview of a woman wearing dress with an empire waist (ala the Regency period) and holding her arms up?

Photo by L. Marie

Photo by L. Marie

Book covers from Goodreads. Divergent movie poster from artseavideos.wordpress.com.

See You at the Movies?

Happy belated Father’s Day to all of you dads out there. My family and I went to see Finding Dory the other day as a combination Happy Birthday/Father’s Day celebration for my younger brother. A good time was had by all.

Finding-Dory-Poster

While we waited for the movie to start, my sister-in-law mentioned that it was the first movie she’d seen at the theater in over a year. Interestingly, Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Dory (and Finding Nemo), had a short clip before the movie began in which he thanked the audience for coming out to watch the movie; thus acknowledging that the movie-going experience is increasingly rare for many.

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When I was a teen and a younger adult, I hit the movies just about every weekend. I didn’t miss a major movie. But for five of the last six years, I can use one hand to count the number of movies I’ve seen at the theater. Last year, I saw more movies at the theater than I’d seen in years. I saw

 NEMye3g3VuXNQM_1_1   star-wars-the-force-awakens-poster

Jurassic-World-2015-movie-poster   MPW-102782

avengers_age_of_ultron_NEW_POSTER    Ant-Man-Movie-Poster

See? Not a ton of movies. For others, popping a DVD or blu-ray disk into a player was the extent of my movie-going experience. (Wish I’d seen The Martian at the movie theater. Glad I saw it on blu-ray at least.)

the-martian-poster

This year, I’ve seen Captain America: Civil War twice (took my niece the second time), Zootopia, and now Finding Dory. I hope to see several others on my list—like Doctor Strange; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; Suicide Squad; and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

zootopia-poster-01   captain-america-civil-war-movie-poster

A number of factors work against my desire to go to a movie theater: higher prices; films that are all style and no substance; and rude moviegoers. In one movie theater I attended, a group of teens talked loudly and ran around the theater until the manager threw them out—halfway through the movie. So I usually head to the cheap theaters, reserving the first-run experience for the movies I want to see the most. And I tend to see movies I really want to see, rather than take a chance on an unknown the way I used to do. (Same with books, sadly.)

movie-theater-items-hi

(By the way, many critics declared that Jurassic World lacked substance. Though the characters were underdeveloped (and some were downright annoying), the movie’s entertainment value made up for the lack of substance—at least for me.)

I miss the days when my good friend who lived next door, my brother, and I would look at each other and say, “Let’s go to the movies.” And then off we’d go without a second thought. Back in the day, Spielberg movies were always a draw for us, along with those of John Carpenter, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, and others.

I also miss some of the element of surprise. Nowadays, with incessant internet trailers that give too much away, and people blabbing spoilers on social media, you practically know everything about a movie before you walk in the theater. To maintain at least some of the surprise, I tend to avoid watching more than one trailer for the movies I’m determined to see at the theater.

Still another thing I miss is having a slate of movies to choose from with well-developed plots, dialogue, and pacing. Instead, we might get one good movie and several well-this-is-sort-of-okay-though-it-is-a-dumbed-down-adaptation-of a-well-known-book/inferior-remake/sequel-of-a-better-film. That’s why I love the adage at Pixar: “Story is king.” (They also have the twenty-two rules below.) I wish many studios believed that.

Pixar's 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling

How many movies did you see at the theater last year? What do you like or dislike about the movie-going experience? What movie are you excited to see this year?

Brooklyn movie poster from movieposter.com. Jurassic World movie poster from dvdreleasedates.com. Inside Out movie poster from movieweb.com. Finding Dory movie poster from screenrant.com. Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie poster from inquisitr.com. The Martian movie poster from flickeringmyth.com. Zootopia movie poster from film-book.com. Captain America: Civil War movie poster from shockya.com. Movie theater clip art from clker.com. Pixar rules from gsartfactory.blogspot.com.

Good by Whose Standards? Exploring the Gap between Critics and Consumers

Hope you had a happy Easter! ****WARNING: If you wish to avoid reading anything about what critics have said about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, stop reading right now. You have been warned.****

By now you’ve heard that one of the most anticipated movies of 2016—Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice—opened to dismal reviews. It earned a stunning 29% on Rotten Tomatoes. (By comparison Zootopia earned a 99%.)

batman-vs-superman-dawn-of-justice

I was surprised at that score. But what interested me more than the reviews I’ve seen was the reaction of fans in regard to the critics who viewed the film with such disfavor. Even director Zach Snyder and some of the cast reacted to the criticism.

The New York Times addressed the gap between fans and critics in an article by Jonah Bromwich that you can find here. Bromwich proclaims

Critics who have panned the film have been met with fury online, with angry fans sneering at their reviews, their writing and even their motives.

512px-Thumbs_down_font_awesome.svgThis is not the first time fans and critics have failed to see eye to eye. Undoubtedly, it won’t be the last. While Bromwich’s article mentioned that a critical thumb’s down won’t deter diehard fans (case in point: a teen I know saw the movie and loved it), a steady onslaught of critical reviews can sometimes take a toll. As of the writing of this post, the box office take for the movie had not yet been posted. So who knows? Perhaps the fans will have the last word if the film rakes in a ton of money. (Wired.com has what I think is a fair take on Batman v. Superman and the critical drubbing it received. You can find that here.)

Reactions to any artistic endeavor can be subjective. But when so many people pan a project, thus inspiring another group to pan them for panning said project, I can’t help wondering who decides which elements make a project “good” or “excellent.” Is beauty truly in the eyes of the beholder (the consumer) or in the eyes of the gatekeepers (critics, agents, movie studio executives, publishers—whoever)? Is the gap between consumers and gatekeepers widening?

gap-20clipart-gap

Many people have written books on what makes a piece of writing “good.” I’m sure you’ve seen some of those. You’re probably thinking of Strunk & White right about now, or Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing. I think of Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft (a personal favorite). As for films, you have only to look at the lists of the “best” films of all time and books like Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies to see what many have regarded as “good” films.

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If I’m serious about seeing a film, most of the time there is no critic alive who will deter me from seeing it. In fact, I try to avoid reading reviews until I’ve seen the film. But I’m not always successful in avoiding them; consequently, negative reviews sometimes sway me. With books, however, I often check the reviews (including verbal praise from friends) beforehand. I’ve been burned too many times in the past not to.

I have opinions, yes, about what I consider “good.” Sometimes I judge by the way a book or film made me feel as I read it or viewed it. Many of the books and films I’ve loved over the years haven’t had all of the bells and whistles of a critically acclaimed, National Book award finalist or Academy Award nominee. Yet I found something endearing about them. On the other hand, I’ve loved some extremely well written books (All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, for instance) and films.

All the Light We Cannot See

The jury’s still out on whether or not I’ll see Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I have to chalk some of my reticence up to my inability to escape some of the negative press. How about you? Have you ever been swayed against seeing a film or reading a book because of a negative review? Do you, like some fans, believe that critics don’t understand what the average person likes? Why or why not?

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Batman v. Superman poster from thegg.net. Book covers from Goodreads. Peeps from Pinterest.com. Thumb’s down image from commons.wikimedia.org. Gap image from clipartpanda.com.