Write to Please or Write with Ease (i.e., What I Really Want to Write)?

Hope you had a splendid Easter. I had an Easter meal at the home of some friends and came away with a ton of leftovers, including the Peeps in the photo below that my friend Carrie decorated. I’m useless at this type of thing by the way.

Before church, I watched a behind-the-scenes video by a music artist I love, which was about the making of a video for one of the songs on her latest album. During this video, she talked about how she was finally at a point where she was no longer desperate to please people. She didn’t say that as if to imply that she no longer cared if anyone bought her music. The songs she’d written for the album came from a place of confidence and joy, because she was finally free to be who she was.

Kirstea feels free to be who she is. But she hopes she won’t become a free meal for the giant owl standing near her.

I love that sense of coming to a place where you create the way you want to create. Yes, there are risks involved. You put your stuff out there and people might hate it. Or they might love your vision.

That video came at an interesting time. I’d recently had a conversation with a grad school classmate who asked me if I felt pressured to write a certain kind of story (i.e., contemporary realistic issue-based or something based on the mythology of my culture). Please do not misunderstand me. I love both kinds of stories. I’ve actually had a contemporary realistic novella published under a different name. But honestly, I gravitate to fantasy stories based on the mythology to which I am most familiar. I told my classmate that I don’t like to be pigeonholed. I write the stories based on characters who deeply interest me, regardless of whether they look like me or not.

I seldom lean in the direction that well-meaning people steer me. In college when people told me I needed to major in something “useful” (like biology, poli sci, or physics) rather than continue in the writing program (part of the English department), I continued in the writing program. Though they didn’t see the “use” of such a program, I found it very useful when I had to write books.

To be fair, under contract I’ve written books that other people had suggested I write based on a need (like a picture book for an ESL program). Some were ghostwritten, others as work for hire under my name. (L. Marie is a pen name, as many of you know.) Pleasing the client (usually a publisher or a famous person contracted by the publisher) was paramount.

But creating a world like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, or Charles Yallowitz’s Windemere has been my desire since I was eight years old. That was back when cuneiform was all the rage. I’m very influenced by writers like J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Sheila Turnage, Juliet Marillier, Robin McKinley, N. K. Jemison, Neil Gaiman, Gail Carson Levine, Shannon Hale, Holly Black, and many others.

Sir Terry Pratchett, N. K. Jemisin

Still, I know several people who would never willingly read a story I’ve written because they don’t like fantasy stories. It would please them greatly if I returned to contemporary realistic fiction. I won’t say never, if a character comes my way whose story is compelling to me. But I won’t say yes just to please someone.

How about you? Is the freedom to create what you want to create something you desire? What do you think about pleasing others? Is that good, bad, or something you’re indifferent to? Feel free to share. (If you are curious about the video I mentioned earlier, you can find it here.)

Having escaped from the owl, Kirstea has resumed being free to be who she is. But now she wishes she was tall enough to carry off one of the Peeps.

Terry Pratchett photo from Wikipedia. N. K. Jemisin photo from Wired.com. Other photos by L. Marie. Kirstea Shoppie is a product by Moose Toys.

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Color Grading Your Story

Happy Good Friday/Regular Friday (if the celebration of Good Friday is not your thing).

Days ago, I watched a YouTube video on the digital color grading for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (2001-2003). I know. Random. The following is not the video I watched that day. But it provides a really good explanation about digital color grading for film.

Lest you’re sitting there, unable to muster concern about the subject, let me just say there’s been a lot of talk of movie color palettes. While some praised the Lord of the Rings movies for their color palette, others denounced Jackson’s The Hobbit (2012) for being “too crisp and bright.” And while some Marvel’s movie palettes have been praised for their brightness, some DC movie palettes have been criticized as too murky. Even when DC tried to brighten things up with Justice League (2017), some people still criticized them. Movie fans can be fickle, I guess.

       

In an article by David Geffin, “The Power Of Color Grading And The Benefit It Can Have On Your Work Summarized In Two Minutes” (and yes, all of those articles and prepositions were capitalized by this author, so please don’t feel the need to point out capitalization errors in the comments), we find this truth:

Color is so important because, like lighting, it affects a mood and feel of a piece, and therefore how we interpret the final image.

Geffin includes the two-minute video mentioned in the title that you can check out if you click here.

I’m a big fan of color to enhance mood. But what can you do in a book where the imagination is the only screen you have to work with?

I like to use thematic colors in narration. In my young adult novel with three protagonists, I have a fire wielder, a plant wielder, and one person in between who is neutral. (While he does not wield an element, he has the ability to block magic.)

Let’s say Rosie Bloom (left) is my fire wielder while Macy Macaron (right) is my plant wielder. (Okay, the fact that Rosie has roses kind of messes up the analogy, but work with me here.) Shuri (middle) is my neutral person.

My plant wielder might be dressed in natural colors on the cooler side of the spectrum (green and blue) to make you think of a forest or a river flowing by trees. Emotionally, she’s a bit down also, so the blue palette does double duty for her.

My fire wielder was trickier. As an assassin, I couldn’t put him in warm, fiery colors, because he’d stand out. He prefers the shadows. So, I had to use color in a different way—to highlight his emotion, i.e., through phrases like “the red blaze of his anger.”

My neutral dude was a lot easier. He wears a lot of gray, because some of his actions fall into a gray area morally at times.

Another way to color grade a story is to make sure the colors that emphasize mood are the ones emphasized on a page.

19063In this passage from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, what do you see? (SPOILER ALERT. Look away if you don’t want to know something that could possibly spoil a plot point in the book or the movie. I will tell you when to look.)

   There were shocked pajamas and torn faces. It was the boy’s hair she saw first.

Rudy?

She did more than mouth the word now. “Rudy?”

He lay with his yellow hair and closed eyes, and the book thief ran toward him and fell down. She dropped the black book. (Zusak, 535)

In this aftermath of a bombing, I see two colors: yellow and black. This scene involves Liesel Meminger who makes a grisly discover concerning her friend, Rudy Steiner. Zusak mentioned two colors that enhance mood: the bright yellow of Rudy’s hair, which shows the brightness of a life tragically ending in death—reminiscent of the black book Liesel drops. Ending with the black book after the yellow hair is like watching a solar eclipse. (END SPOILER)

In what ways have you seen colors used effectively to enhance mood? Perhaps you’ve seen filters and other highlights done well on Instagram or Facebook. Do tell!

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.

Color grade image from fstoppers.com. Book cover from Goodreads. Justice League movie poster from fanpop.com. The Hobbit movie poster from flicks.co.nz. Rose Bloom and Macy Macaron are Shoppie dolls made by Moose Toys. Shuri, from the movie Black Panther, was made by Hasbro. Photo by L. Marie.

Would You Buy It?

Worth It is a show I’ve binge-watched lately on the Buzz Feed YouTube channel. Have you seen it? Its stars, Steven Lim and Andrew Ilnyckyj, and their camera and sound guy, Adam, sample three foods or beverages at three different prices to determine which is worth the money.

Below are screenshots of two of the items sampled. One is a $2000 pizza with edible gold leaf (yes, $2000; you can see the ingredients list on the photo) and the other is a $2500 caviar soufflé with quail eggs (a Guinness World Record holder for the most expensive soufflé on earth).

  

While the show hosts sampled the wares, I asked myself if I would ever eat gold leaf, even if I had the money. (Another episode, which you can find here, features a $100 donut with gold leaf.) The answer was a resounding no. This is not a judgment call on anyone who would, however.

But a day later, I found myself salivating over a pair of cars Nicki showed on her Behind the Story blog recently. If you head over there, you’ll find a video showcasing the Alfa Romeo Stelvio and Giulia and their precision on ice. Or just click here. Each is over $40,000! But when you live in the frozen Midwest, any car that handles that well on ice (you have to see the video) gets your attention.

Alfa Romeo Stelvio. Gimme?

Maybe to you that doesn’t seem like a lot to pay for a good car. But seeing as how I paid $2500 for my current car (good and used, old as dirt) $40,000 feels like a $2500 soufflé—an unlikely purchase.

How about you? Are there big-ticket items you dream about, but don’t think you’ll buy? Would you treat yourself if you could?

These Shopkins Cutie cars want to do the Stelvio/Guilia ice challenge. Somehow I doubt they’d avoid crashing into each other.

Alfa Romeo Stelvio from caradvice.com.au. Other photos by L. Marie. Shopkins Cutie Cars are a registered trademark of Moose Toys.

How Do You Know You’re in the Flow?

Ever have a time when you were writing or doing something else creative, and you just couldn’t stop? Words or ideas poured out of you, and you had to implement them. We call this a state of flow. (And yes, I wrote a post about this five years ago. I’m taking a different angle on it this time.)

According to Wikipedia,

[F]low, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, formerly the head of psychology at the University of Chicago and currently the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, is known for his study on flow. Flow, according to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, is also known as ecstasy. And no, I’m not talking about drugs here, though in his 2004 TED Talk, Csikszentmihalyi explained that “ecstasy is essentially a stepping into an alternative reality.” You’re so in the zone, it’s like you’re watching yourself create. You don’t notice anything else—hunger, weariness, etc. Csikszentmihalyi added, “[T]his automatic, spontaneous process . . . can only happen to someone who is very well trained and who has developed technique.”

I asked several writers how they know they’re in a state of flow.

Steve Bramucci, author of The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo! (look for his next book this October) and managing editor over at Uproxx, said,

I recognize flow when I start to think, “This is brilliant! Have I accidentally stolen it from someone else? It’s too good of an idea NOT to have been written already! I must’ve stolen it! I’m such a hack!” At which point I google the idea furiously and, when I find it’s not stolen, I get this excited/thrilled buzzy feeling. Something akin to double fisting caffeine and green juice after a 6 am surf. I get tingly and overly emotional and write and write and write—only taking breaks to text my wife things like, “I really think I was destined to be a writer! I believe in my stories! I promise you this project will bring us financial security!” etc. If that all sounds insufferable, I’m sure it is. But it’s my process. It’s not what ends up on the page; insufferable processes can often lead to positive results.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of novels for young adults and adults, said,

It’s when I feel that I’m in the time and place along with my characters, hearing them speak, feeling the same things they do, following them as they move.

Laura Sibson, a young adult and middle grade author (look for her young adult novel debut in 2019), had this to say:

When drafting, I know that I’m in a state of flow when I’m not tempted to look at the clock or check email or social media. My environment drops away in the sense that I’m not super-aware of what’s happening around me. In those moments, I’m fully immersed in my story world and it feels like the real world. I can see it as clearly as I see the scenery outside my window.

S. K. Van Zandt, another middle grade and young adult author, said,

For me, it’s the unstuck feeling. It’s picturing a scene in my mind, the “what happens next,” and the words are just there, as opposed to seeing the scene and staring at the computer. I think the ability to get (and stay) “in the zone” has everything to do with knowing your characters and story well.

Jill Weatherholt, author of Second Chance Romance (look for her next book this July) and romance short stories, said this:

When I feel what’s happening to my characters so deeply that I’m moved emotionally and I become completely oblivious to my surroundings, I know I’m in a state of flow.

Charles Yallowitz, author of Warlord of the Forgotten Age and other books in the Legends of Windemere series, put it this way:

I never really thought about being in a state of flow. I’m usually just writing along until I stop. So it’s almost like a trance.

How do you know you’re going with the flow when you work?

If you want to check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk:

Kirstea, frazzled as always lately, took flow to a whole different level when she allowed her teacup to overflow.

My Little Pony Pinkie Pie and chicken figures by Hasbro. Kirstea Shoppie doll by Moose Toys. Photos by L. Marie.

Dressed for a Fight

When I was a kid, I liked to be ready for anything. So even if I wore a skirt, I liked to have a pair of shorts on underneath. You know, in case I wanted to turn a cartwheel or something. I had a tendency to bust a move like that at a moment’s notice. (Culottes also were an acceptable fashion statement.)

And being “ready for anything” sometimes meant “ready to engage in fisticuffs.” That was life on the south side of Chicago for a nerdy kid (and those who weren’t; bullies didn’t discriminate). The time 3:15 still sends chills down my spine. That was when school let out. That was when fights were scheduled. You had to be ready to throw down if someone picked a fight with you. (My older brother, whose birthday is today, taught me to fight.)

I’m reminded of how people readied for fights in my neighborhood. If girls started braiding their hair and taking off earrings, you knew a fight was about to happen. But nobody had a catsuit to don for a fight like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) from the Marvel movies or Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) from The Avengers, a British show from the 1960s. (Uh-huh. I’m totally dating myself. Oh well. You knew I was old.) I’m not dissing the catsuit. I’ve longed to be Black Widow or Emma Peel—easily dispatching villains. And if I could look as cool as they look in a catsuit, believe me, I would throw one on and pick fights with people, just to look cool.

  

Now that my introduction is out of the way, let me share something I’ve been thinking about: fight scenes. Maybe you’re not into fight scenes. I can’t say I live and die for them. But a compelling fight scene with high stakes can be very satisfying to watch. And since I’m revising some fight scenes in a young adult fantasy book, I pay attention to them in movies.

In the Vanity Fair video below, the director of Black Panther, Ryan Coogler, discusses a scene in the movie. What I love about this video is the fact that he discusses why the clothing of two women in the scene fit the theme of the fight. Though part of the scene can be seen in the trailer, it contains some spoilers, so be warned!

What I loved about this scene in the movie (and I get it if you don’t have the time or interest to watch the video; it’s over nine minutes long) is the fact that the characters (Okoye played by Danai Gurira and Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o) had to fight in fashionable attire. They were fierce and feminine. There was no time to change clothes. The fight came to them.

This is the action figure for Shuri, sister of T’Challa (the Black Panther). She’s not in the video, but she’s in the movie. This is how she dressed for a fight.

The reason why this video struck me is that I agonized over what one of my main characters would wear on the worst day of her life. She’s not a trained warrior, but she has to fight for her life, as many heroines have had to do. I had her in pants at first, because I was still of the “always be prepared for anything” mindset (shorts under a skirt, remember). But as I saw in the fight discussed in the video, and as I recalled my elementary school years, sometimes the fight comes, whether you’re ready or not. So, it’s nice to know that though my main character is wearing a dress (which felt more natural to the character), she can still look convincing in a fight.

Diana Rigg photo from somewhere on Pinterest. Culottes photo from thirdeyechicfashion.com. Other photos by L. Marie. Shuri action figure by Hasbro. Boxer Hello Kitty figure by Tokidoki.

Music to My Ears—Five Years A-Bloggin’

I was sitting at my desk the other day, contemplating what I would have for breakfast, when I suddenly realized, Oh my goodness! My blogoversary passed!

As of February 19, I’ve been blogging for five years. I didn’t think I’d last five minutes, let alone five years. But here I am. Like the proverbial bad penny, I keep turning up. I’m grateful to all of you who discovered this blog and keep coming back. Rest assured, the weirdness will continue. (Or, run away while you still can.)

On with the show. Recently, a friend who is taking a writing class shared the following video with me.

In case you elect to avoid spending almost eight minutes watching the video (though it was well done), its creator, Nerdwriter1, discusses the recurring musical themes (leitmotifs) of the Lord of the Rings movie soundtracks, composed by Howard Shore (movies directed by Peter Jackson, based on books by J. R. R. Tolkien). These are my favorite soundtracks of all time, so of course I had to take a look.

I was already well aware of Howard Shore’s genius. But the video was a lovely reminder of what you get when a powerful musical score is wedded to a powerful story.

   

See, kids? These are CDs. We used to play these back in the day.

On many days, I had the soundtracks playing in the background while I wrote. I can remember writing scenes that matched the tempo of Shore’s compositions. These soundtracks made me want to write the kind of story that would merit a skillfully written score played by an equally skilled orchestra.

So yeah, I love those soundtracks. But not just Howard Shore’s. I love the soundtracks from Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) (movies directed by Christopher Nolan), which were composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. These soundtracks, with their edgy orchestration, are an interesting contrast to the Lord of the Rings soundtracks. But they all have an epic quality that evokes emotion. (If you look at the list of musical selections on the Batman Begins soundtrack, you’ll note that each was named after a bat genus. Also, BATMAN is spelled out.)

    

    

I have music in my head, even as I write this blog post. I’m hearing the horns from The Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack. Being a blogger is a kind of fellowship. You post something and hope someone will read it. And when someone does, and you get to know that person, relationships are forged. I’ve met many great people through this blog. People like you. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Kitty and her interns. Somebody’s gotta get the coffee.

Batman Begins movie poster from geekynerfherder.blogspot.com. The Dark Knight movie poster from popcritics.com. Other photos by L. Marie. Snow-Fro and Kissy Boo Shoppets are registered trademarks of Moose Toys.

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.