Ten Twists on Well-Known Titles

Some books/movies would be interesting if they were rewritten about completely different things. Here is what some classics well-know stories could have been about if the title had been just a few letters different. In no particular order:

1. Count of Monte Crisco: concerns the same titular character as Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale of revenge, but documents his hairdresser’s struggle to deal with the Count’s prison-learned habit of slicking his hair with vegetable shortening. Also describes his hairdresser’s despair at removing eight years accumulation of fat from Edmond Dante’s hair follicles. Philosophical monograph.

2. A Tail of Two Cities: a Frenchman discovers that he is being followed whenever he visits two major cities and only those two major cities. His tail has squeaky shoes. But why? Footsteps. Echoing Footsteps grow nearer and nearer. Detective Thriller.

3. Tim: Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, but cuts out the boring parts and adds more spy stuff. Twist: Tim is the Llama, an eccentric schizophrenic master spy. Suspense. Thriller.

4. Package to India: Tells the story of a parcel’s journey from the British mail service and through the Indian postal system. Likely more interesting and slightly more fulfilling than E. M. Forester’s classic novel on religion, equality, and justice in colonial India. Informational pamphlet.

5. Fat and Furious: Teenager is infuriated when he is refused admission to police officer training academy after failing a physical fitness exam. He steals cars and blows things up. Action Adventure.

6. Clear and Pleasant Danger: Jack Ryan smiles more. Spy Thriller.

7. Moles: Adaptation of the novel by Louis Sachar. By freak accident, a teenage boy uncovers a plot by the mole people to create so many sinkholes that the ground is destabilized and entire cities collapse. He is enslaved in the mole tunnels where he meets a boy descended from the man who helped his ancestor defeat the mole people the last time they tried this. Unfortunately, that boy’s ancestor did not get a congressional medal of honor (nobody did) and he cursed our teen’s ancestor’s family line with having an abnormal number of facial moles and acne. To regain his dignity, our teen must defeat the mole people and get a congressional medal of honor for his young friend. Teen Adventure.

8. Fellowship of the Bling: It is the 90s. Freddie Baggens is given a necklace with the smallest bling ever. His friends think it’s hideous. Also, he goes on an unpleasant drug trip whenever he wears it. They go on a cross-country trip to Yellowstone to destroy it in the most epic way possible, which, since it’s the 90s, involves unrealistic CGI volcanoes. Campy Classic.

9. Less Miserable’s: Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. However, after he is given parole, Inspector Javert, motivated by a desire to see the maximum amount of justice done, opts to investigate child abuse, prisoners’ human rights violations, and underground revolutionary rings instead of ex-cons who steal small change. As a result, the people of France are less miserable. Moralistic Novel.

10. Encouragement: In the wake of Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant, and….Four comes a groundbreaking novel about a girl whose parents encourage her unique personality. The government doesn’t try to kill her, and as a result, she does not seek solace in questionable friendships or overthrow the government, but instead pursues art and science. Teen Fiction/Philosophy.

Bonus: 11. Mad Max: Furry Road: Max is angry because his cat sheds a lot. To prove the point, he takes his cat on a road trip to place cat hair end-to-end across the entire continental United States. Not everyone appreciates this. There are lots of car and foot chases, flying fur, and sneezing. Documentary.

I’m collecting ideas for an eventual second edition of this list.

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How I Got Published

As a writer, I have read a few articles about getting published. Honestly, it sounds like a lot of work. But lots of people do it. Here I share with you the secrets of the few, and give practical advice on how you should get published.

1. Get an agent. I’m not very clear on this. It appears that the more lavishly you can bribe an agent, the more likely you are to get published. So, if you want to get published, you should become a millionaire. If you are a millionaire already, a publishing company will probably pay you to publish your book which you actually paid someone else to write for you. (See step 4.)
If you don’t want to become a millionaire, you should write a letter to an agent or a publishing house and hope that either your writing or the first paragraph of your story is good enough to hold an audience. (I received my first rejection letter this way for
BLOWN UP.) 

2. Publish through AmazonYes! Amazon has agreements with companies who will print your book on demand. They will also buy books from you to sell. In order to be successful in this game you must provide your own publicity for the book. Or you could just be really good, get spiffy reviews, and become an overnight sensation. I recommend becoming an overnight sensation. People get really tired of hearing about how amazing your writing is, really fast. (It probably isn’t as amazing as you think it is.) Amazon also publishes E-books, which are a win-win situation for them, because it costs them almost nothing, but they make a hefty profit. If one is going to do that, I ask why not:

3. Write a BlogOne can actually make money through a blog. This is the way web comics work. One can get a following and customize the environment. Blogs provide more freedom than publishing in a underread magazine does. (Hey look! I just published again when I hit the “Publish” button!) However, if you can’t write (or draw entertaining pictures) you make less than if you sent the story off to some obscure magazine. 

4. Become a PoliticianI remember when Bill Clinton published his memoirs. They were everywhere. I don’t think I ever met anyone who read them. Suddenly, every serious politician was writing a memoir. I fail to see the appeal. Unless the writer is excellent or my favorite person ever, I become disgusted with the egotism. I would like to see a presidential candidate write a memoir in the style of Patrick F. McManus. I would read that. So. If you want to get published, you should run for office.

5. Become infamous (or a jurist). Did you know that the transcripts of federal court and committee proceedings may be published? No one will ever read them, but they do get published. You can find them at your local college library.

6. Become a scientistWrite papers about discoveries or failures to discover things. (“It was concluded that the above process for forming benzyl acetate is impractical due to poor yield and a competing polymerization reaction.”) The writing must be decent to be published in a good magazine, and few outside one’s field will ever read it. I’ve actually gotten published this way! You get the best of both worlds! Both well-written and under-read, no one will believe you’re a writer. 

However, somewhere in the bowels of a research lab, a student may one day find your paper, realize you had the same problem, and empathize. And that is what being a writer is all about.  

Thanks, xkcd.

Seven Serious Rules of Writing

It’s the end of NaNoWriMo season. Rather than participating, I spent my evenings studying for several reasons

1) I needed to study.

2) I have yet to reach the required word-count on any of my finished stories.

Truly, I am a well-educated and efficient author, above the need to actually write anything, but I thought, “What of those pitiful writers who have not yet reached the 50,000 word mark due to their inefficient study habits? What of those writers who could not overcome their fear of failure  to attempt NaNoWriMo?” Unfortunately for those pitiful people, I only write novellas and short stories, but perhaps my insights will help them in their quest.

1) An essay is only as good as its thesis. Likewise, a story is only as good as its dilemma. Knowledge of a life-changing dilemma is not necessary at the beginning, but a dilemma brings the story to its end. –Source: American Literature professor, Introduction to Theatre professor

2) Every story begins with false journey that leads to the real journey. The introduction to the characters and development of the real crisis takes place here. The journey to Rivendell, the discovery of Narnia and flight to the stone table, and all the events leading up to Jim Hawkins sailing away are false journeys.–Source: Bearmageddon 

3) A writer should cram a lot of information into paragraphs with short sentences. One should never trust someone who says ‘should,’ or uses bulky passive sentences frequently. Avoid backstory or start the story there. A writer would be wise to assume the reader is smart, but not smart enough to read big words.–Source: Immediate Fiction, Organic Chemistry I lab instructor

4) Include enough information that the reader can figure out what is happening. Elaborate why because otherwise the reader is confused and doesn’t actually care. Confused readers abandon stories half-way. Never generalize.–Source: American Literature professor

5) Write in passive voice.–Source: Organic Chemistry I lab instructor

6) Write in active voice.–Source: American Literature professor

7) Break the rules. Good writers are good at that. But never cite Wikipedia.–Source: Kurt Vonnegut (not the Wikipedia bit, but we know he was thinking it.)

Some Thoughts

  1. You cannot write great things by trying to write great things. The only thing to do is bite your tongue, have fun, and get ‘er done.
  2. You will never feel ready for work that you dread. You will never do it correctly except in retrospect. The only thing to do is try your hardest. Life is like that Remember: the only way to get into a math mood is to do math.
  3. Time management is the ability to painfully pull yourself away from something, and focus on something else. The warm productivity fuzzies might make up for the pain.

This weekend I might write something terribly insightful like, “How I Survived a Week with Just Three Pairs of Clean Socks.” For now, I face this week with increased determination. Fare ye well–Joanna

Shrediting

I am bad at editing. I procrastinate editing  because the process scares me. My editing has four distinct stages. In this post, I demonstrate them by tearing apart the first paragraph of a draft.

Waves swept over the boat’s side. Jill clung to the steering wheel’s post, trying desperately to stay on her feet. She had lashed her waist to the steering post but that didn’t help her keep her footing. Her legs slid across the deck, slippery with seaweed and wildlife scum. Her knees banged mercilessly against it, going numb in the icy water that sloshed back and forth. Probably a good thing. I’ll never live down these bruises. She clung to the wheel. It was useless to maintain her course. Like the green pilot she was, she had let the wheel spin the first time she fell, smashing the glass casing around her compass as she went. A ship loomed in the darkness above the waves. It was just bobbing in and out of the eyesight. It wasn’t a sea-going vessel. She glanced down at the greenery littering the deck. All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Frantically, she glanced up into the gray expanse of cloud. Tall pillars of stone appeared through the mist, rising like stalagmites out of the water. They were the iconic symbols of Arcadina, wardens of the deadly shallows that appeared on good days in Arcadinan travel brochures. “Relax in sunny Arcadina” the tagline was. “I wish.” she gritted through her teeth.

Patching occurs while writing the first draft. It is like fixing a dress with duct tape because  you can not be bothered to do any sewing. Patching fixes continuity errors, inserts the right word, rephrase, and making a major name change. Patching a draft in progress is so laborious you might put it off, especially since the next stage of editing tends to introduce gaping plot holes.

Waves swept over the ship’s side. Jill clung to the wheel, trying desperately to stay on her feet. She had lashed herself to the wheel, but that did not help her keep her footing. Her legs slid across the deck, slippery with sea scum. Her knees banged mercilessly against it, going numb in the icy water that sloshed back and forth. Probably a good thing. I’ll never live down these bruises. She clung to the wheel. It was useless trying to maintain her course. Like the green pilot she was, she had let the wheel spin the first time she fell, smashing the glass casing around her compass as she went. A ship loomed in the darkness above the waves. It was just bobbing in and out of the eyesight. It wasn’t a sea-going vessel. She glanced down at the greenery littering the deck. “All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Frantically, she glanced up into the gray expanse of cloud. Tall pillars of stone appeared through the mist, rising like stalagmites out of the water. They were the iconic symbols of Arcadia, wardens of the deadly shallows that appeared on good days in Arcadian travel brochures. “Relax in sunny Arcadia” the tagline was. “I wish.” she gritted through her teeth.

Focusing the argument and organization. This is like going back to alter a dress you have made (or patched)  because it does not fit. You tear out characters, get rid of nonessential events, re-arrange everything, and stitch it carefully back together. You might have to do this several times before it fits. And it looks horrible.

A wave crashed over the ship’s side. Jill clung to the wheel where she had lashed herself. She slipped on the sea scum littering the deck, and banged her knees on the deck. She pulled herself up, but not before her knees had gone numb in the icy water. “Cold is good, or I’d never live down the bruises,” She reminded herself. It was useless trying to steer. Like a novice, she let go the wheel the first time she fell, and landed on her compass, smashing it. Jill spotted a lantern in the dark, bobbing  in and out of eyesight over the waves. It wasn’t on a boat. She glanced at the seaweed littering the deck. “All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Tall pillars of stone rose through a low-hanging mist. They were wardens of deadly shallows and icons of Arcadia in colorful travel brochures with the slogan “Relax in sunny Arcadia!” “I wish.” she gritted through her teeth.

Pulling out the extra sentences comes next. It is like cutting off rickrack off a dress, ripping out bright red basting stitches, or fixing the hemline. You make it look nice. Pulling omits any nonessential word or phrase, eliminates sections emphasizing or telling the audience what to think, and adds explanation where plot holes exist. It hurts.

A wave crashed over the ship. Jill had lashed herself to the wheel, but she slipped on the sea scum littering the deck, banging her knees. Her knees were numb with the icy water before she could pull herself up. “Cold is good, or I’d be covered in bruises,” She muttered. Trying to steer was useless. She had let go the wheel the first time she fell and smashed her compass on the deck. Jill spotted a steady light in the dark visible between the waves. She glanced at the seaweed littering the deck. “All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Tall pillars of stone rose through a low-hanging mist. They were wardens of shallows and icons of Arcadia in colorful travel brochures urging, “Relax in sunny Arcadia!” “I wish.” Jill muttered.

Grammar and punctuation are very last. This stage is like cutting all the loose ends on a finished dress. You must still delete commas, add periods, eliminate fragments, fix run-ons, and correct faulty pronoun association problems. Then you are done…right?

A wave crashed over the ship. Jill had lashed herself to the wheel, but she slipped on the sea scum littering the deck. Her knees were numb with the icy water before she could pull herself up. “Cold is good, or I’d be covered in bruises,” she muttered. Trying to steer was useless. She had let go of the wheel the first time she fell and had smashed her compass on the deck. Jill spotted a steady light visible between the dark waves. She glanced at the seaweed littering the deck. “All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Tall pillars of stone rose through a low-hanging mist. The monoliths were wardens of shallows and icons of Arcadia in colorful travel brochures that urged, “Relax in sunny Arcadia!” “I wish.” Jill muttered.

cutting up a book

Many writers get stuck at the editing stage, and shred their work before it’s even written; others don’t edit if they can help it. I fall into the latter camp. I always save a copy before I start. Editing is stressful because you have to decide what’s important before deleting a third of your draft. In the examples above, I went from 210 words to 134. A guideline is the shorter, the better.

Unfortunately, editing never ends. However, editing has its benefits. Edited passages emphasize action, look cleaner, cost less to print, and are easier to read. Hopefully, this post has made editing little less scary. It’s daunting, but everyone could benefit from a little editing.

If you have  insights, critiques, suggestions, or stories about shrediting, feel free to comment.

Photo credit: Liz Henry, some rights reserved.

Getting Feedback

The way I ask for feedback really depends on what kind of feedback I want. If I have written a piece and need editing, for instance, I must approach someone very differently than if I want to see if my target audience likes my story/report.

Henriette Browne (1870)

1. For both kinds of feedback, the first thing I learned is not to wrestle people to the ground. People who have been nagged are much less likely to see the project through. There are exceptions to this rule, as my muse knows only too well, but usually I have to ask for volunteers–and then wait. It is especially painful waiting for online feedback because I have no idea the reception my work is receiving. Most critics do not even know me and many will not bother to comment, but I will never know whether that was because my writing was boring, there was too much of it, or it just was not up their ally. Any criticism receive from a complete stranger, however is valuable, because someone cared enough about the story or the writer to give an opinion, many times an honest opinion.

2. The difficulty in getting an opinion increases as the length of the story increases, especially if the story is not regularly serialized. Because it is so difficult to get an online opinion–or any sort of opinion–one should always submit a story to the scrutiny of someone one trusts not to sugarcoat their views, and hopefully, who knows what they are doing as well as being committed to finishing the reading. It also helps if they are given a reasonable amount of time to review.

3. To test the target audience I prefer to read the story aloud to them. (Although this is often not feasible.) This ensures that a) they actually finish the story, b) I have time to catch any obvious typos that pop out as I read, and c) that I can gauge response and clarify any confusing points. One pitfall of this method is that your target audience might not insult you to your face. I find that family members do not have too much trouble with this. Another pitfall that is that most stories go down smoother when they are read aloud, thus doing so might both invite verbosity–my personal difficulty–and make a confusing passage clearer than it might otherwise be.

4. Editing feedback is a lot harder to get because it is a lot of work. One of my challenges is editing. I can usually eliminate awkward constructions and check punctuation, but I have a real difficulty eliminating sentences which do not further my argument or contribute to the story. My general rule is less is more. Beyond that, I do not have much editing skill. For someone without skills or good friends who can edit, the best advice I have yet found is to join a serious online writing group–entrusting one’s work to strangers who may or may not have skill. Otherwise? I recommend reading lots of good work and taking a flying stab at editing the work yourself–but keep your first drafts. 😉

Thoughts? Opinions? Insults you have reserved just for me? I treasure them all, though some only in retrospect. Feel free to comment.

Now a Major Motion Picture! Why We Can’t Make Books into Movies

I am not overly qualified to write about books made into movies. I have both read and seen movies based on the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Treasure Island, Ivanhoe, the Princess Bride, Robin Hood, many of Shakespeare’s works–some of them thrice over–and Baroness Orczy’s masterpiece. However, while I have seen movies based on them, I have not actually read the books by Jane Austin, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Alexandre Dumas, and the genius behind Master and Commander, to name a few. Nor have I seen the adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, although I have read the book. (This is a travesty since I work in a county that shares his name.) The book is very linguistic so I’m rather interested in seeing how they managed the movie. There are a few ridiculously popular franchises which I have not bought into at all. (See The Lightning Thief, Eragon, Harry Potter, and Twilight.) However, as a reader, a passable writer, and an avid movie-watcher, I am qualified to talk about movies made from books–and books made from movies.

1. The chief problem that plagues movies based on books is that there is simply not enough room. Whereas it is acceptable to write a book that takes ten or more hours to read, it is not generally acceptable to make a movie longer than three hours. Film-makers in theory could make movies longer, and some do, but they don’t tend to be amazingly popular. Books, however, can be digested in smaller chunks, and at their own pace. Thus, extremely intricate plots can be woven into the book because there’s more time to develop them, and the reader can simply look back if he gets confused. (In a book, it’s also easier to explain plot points and harder to miss pivotal comments in whispered conversation.) In addition, the barrier to entry in the book market is lower, and it’s much less expensive to write a book than it is to film a movie. To some extent, books also have the length barrier. Who reads Moby Dick, War and Peace, or Fathers and Sons? They have their audience, but it’s not a terribly profitable audience. Books can afford to do that. On the other hand, to recoup the costs of production, movies are typically aimed at the everyman. That’s why G, PG, and PG-13 movies are so much more profitable, if harder to write, than most R movies. That’s also why we have the works of Jackie Chan.

2. A second difficulty is the difference of the medium itself. The story must be told in a completely different way. Movies must consciously add the thoughts of a main character in an voice-over, while books can simply say “she thought” and that be the end of it. Even so, critics discourage excess narration. The audience doesn’t want to be told; they want to see. The visual element is one of the movie’s main strengths. Even writers are constantly told, “Show; don’t tell.” and are constantly trying to describe the scene in a meaningful way. My brother explained that it’s hard to write action sequences without sounding like, “you’re writing a step-by-step guide on how to beat someone up.” This is a problem even for writers like myself who visualize the story as they write it. Appearance takes on an increased importance. While a writer may get away with saying, “Jane encountered a tall, dark man in Turkish dress,” the costumers must pay very close attention to what the character looks like because his appearance screams his identity to the audience. Sound is another asset, if it isn’t abused. Thus, a director can recoup what he looses in the way of introspection if he knows how to use costumes, acting, sound effects, and music. Unfortunately, both the leeway and painful exactitude afforded by the writer and different reader’s imagination make transferring characters a formidable challenge.

3. The best strategy I have seen is to take the gold–the heart of the story, keeping the most dramatic events and overallCribite themes, throwing everything else out, and making up filler. Unfortunately, strictly speaking, this isn’t the book, which explains why Twilight fans can get so uptight. I skimmed Sahara by Cussler, and I can say with confidence, that even though they didn’t stick to the book, and annoyed Cussler no end, they made a better movie than they would have had they stuck to the book. Anyone who has seen Raise the Titanic, also based on a Cussler novel, can attest that movies that try to quote books verbatim are boring! The Princess Bride was a brilliant adaptation of the earlier novel and successfully preserved the mood of the book. The script for this movie was also written in consultation with the author, who was satisfied with the movie. It is worth noting, however, that the author in question was mocking the very structure of the pretentious book when he wrote The Princess Bride, demonstrating an important understanding that it’s easy to lose the adventure to the story in a novel. That said, the author’s involvement is neither a guarantee of, nor a doom on a movie’s quality. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader also followed the heart of gold strategy, introducing seven swords as the motivation for the journey rather than using the original goal of finding the lost lords. That worked out fine until they came to the glowing green island of evil in the finale. Any time I see a glowing green island of evil, there’s a fifty percent chance you’ve lost my suspension of disbelief. (See the Return of the King and its glowing green cities of evil.)

4. Another trouble with book-reading movie-watchers is that they have fallen for the story already and want to see every last tidbit. They’re patient! The rest of the world just wants to see Jackie Chan beat people up. (See Around the World in Eighty Days along with any other book adaptations he’s attempted.) I think readers who’ve seen the movie are an easier crowd to write for. If they hadn’t seen the movie, they wouldn’t be reading the book. I originally thought that The Princess Bride was a novelization of the movie; I’m not sure whether that didn’t increase my liking for it. I finished The Scarlet Pimpernel only because I was sure it would eventually turn into an adventure rather than a book about a melodramatic lady complaining that her husband ignores her. (That wasn’t in the movie at all!) In the times this has backfired for myself and others, it’s usually because the book has a very slow pace or advanced vocabulary. (See Jane Austin and LOTR.)

5. There are still other mediums being explored. Prince of Persia was successfully converted from a platform game to a movie with the help of a writer who understood that mediums have different requirements. Then there are the Star Wars novelizations movies and background story and the StarTrek novelizations of the movies and episodes. I’ve never heard anyone arguing about whether the novelization is better than the movie. This strengthens my conviction that once one has fallen in love with the characters, they don’t mind or care about the extra body added in novels. Either that, or everyone assumes that the novelizations are not works or art in their own right. Personally, I think a good writer can make any story art, especially if he’s having fun with it. That said, novelizations tend to be the lightest of reading.

My favorite example of novelization is the Zorro franchise. A ridiculously fun little story called The Curse of Capistrano introduced ZorroDisney made several movies, and the movies were subsequentally given novelizations. I was introduced to the novelizations before I found the movies, after which I hunted up the original. I was nine when I read several novelizations and believed they were original novels. I adore those books, and they were one of my early  models for the kind of story I want to write. (See creative writings for an example.) Only later did I learn that I was emulating the cheap paperback. Disney polluted my literary outlook, as it has done to so many others. Nothing I write will ever be free of movie influence (See Aladdin, permanently associated with Disney by everyone >30.) I’m just the sort of person who shouldn’t be writing about books, movies, and novelizations, but it’s too late.

PS: I’ve just seen Alice in Wonderland (2010) and I can say with confidence that Burton captured the ridiculousness at the heart of the story, if not all the literary jokes. It’s a beautiful, satisfying story, that somehow needed all the weirdness. There’s just one problem. It isn’t Alice in Wonderland; It’s Alice Thirteen Years Later.