Spoiled by Supplements: How Too Much Material Ruins Writers and Readers

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On Saturday night, my brother Richard and I were having a slightly tipsy discussion about Star Wars. Over time, I’ve grown to enjoy The Last Jedi more, but my brother continues to dislike it and finds a lot of the plot unbelievable. While I was trying to explain, he asked, “Where was that established?” When I told him it was in a Star Wars EU book I’d read, he sighed and said, “But it wasn’t in the movie. You shouldn’t have to read fifteen books or watch twenty films in order to understand why something is happening in this movie.”

While I think he’s still a little too harsh on Star Wars for this failing, he does have a point. As big franchises grow bigger and media becomes even more interconnected, the amount of supplemental material continues to grow… and it isn’t always clear what is supplemental and what is actually necessary in order to understand or appreciate the story. While it’s nice to have a story or characters enriched, and it’s interesting to hear what someone intended or was going for in a commentary or interview, when you leave key pieces of plot, character, and/or motivation to be explained or even addressed in a side comic, you may have a problem. 

The fact is, we as readers and viewers have been spoiled by all of this supplemental material. And I’m afraid it may have an impact on the stories we write and how we construct them. After all, if you’re sure that something will be addressed later in an encyclopedia or short story compilation, it can be easy to forget to establish it at all. That may not be a problem if it’s a side character, but if it directly impacts a major plot point or character arc, then the resolution can seem to come out of left field. Conversely, we can get too detailed if we have too much material to squeeze in or don’t know what to focus on, creating a jumbled mess rather than a streamlined story. We can’t assume that everyone is going to be a die-hard, balls-to-the-wall, completionist type of fan. It’s (usually) fun to find out more about a fictional universe you enjoy, and I’m not against the presence of supplemental material. But there is a Dark Side to the entire affair that I think creators and their audience should be aware of.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I want to address in more detail some main problems with being spoiled by supplemental material including a few (possibly overlapping) case studies:

Issue 1: The Research Trap: How much is too much?
Case study: The Earth’s Children historical fiction series by Jean M. Auel

Issue 2: Incomplete/Muddled Multimedia Story-Telling: Where and how can we access the story?
Case study #1: Star Wars and its sprawling Expanded Universe
Case study #2: Doctor Who and its numerous, often not-well-advertised “specials”

Issue 3: Overlapping & Long-Running stories: Where’s the entry point?
Case study: Marvel, specifically the MCU, but especially long-running comics and shows in general

Issue 4: When Canon and Commentary Collide: What is “part of the story”?
Case study: J.K. Rowling and the Sexuality of Dumbledore (among other misadventures in possible retconning)

 

I hope you’ll share your thoughts on supplemental material, both the pros and the cons, in the comments throughout this blog series!

The Capitalization of Passion

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Image by Andrian Valeanu on Pixabay.

Around this time of year, a lot of people complain about the over-commercialization of the holidays. While I really do enjoy wrapping and unwrapping gifts, I agree that it has gotten way out of control. But what I don’t hear about is the over-commercialization of hobbies and passions, usually via the rising gig economy.

The problem with this is that it seems like anything and everything can (and should) be turned into money. It may not be a substantial or steady source of income, but it does dangle the tempting carrot-myth of “making a living doing what you love” in front of discouraged and disillusioned creatives such as myself. It also turns the word “opportunity” into a guilt-trip. If you’re doing something you love for free, you’re missing an opportunity to make money from it. I mean, if you’re doing it anyway, you might as well try to get paid for doing it, right? Passing up the chance to market yourself is considered just plain stupid. This is the capitalization of passion.

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Pyrrhic Victory

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Photograph by Samuel Francis Johnson on Pixabay.

National Novel Writing Month is over for another year. I was pretty excited to start, but had to drag myself, bruised and battered, to the finish line. Between the growing gloom of winter, getting sick every single weekend, and the increasingly devastating hormonal flux that comes the week before monthlies, I got 10,000 words behind and never properly made up for that. It’s technically complete, but I don’t feel like I have much of a novel.

This could be a complete misconception on my part. I haven’t actually gone back yet to look over what I wrote. There are a few scenes I remember which are pretty good, but I had to throw in a lot of notes and word-vomit to make it to 50,000 words. Even though I reached the NaNoWriMo word count goal, I’m not sure if I earned it. I certainly don’t feel like I did.

Spells in Sepia has potential, but right now I don’t think I have a real plot. It’s just a random assortment of disjointed scenes and concepts. Not a lot actually happening, just a bunch of internal monologuing from my main character. I don’t feel like I have the world-building under control because I haven’t done enough research into the places where the story is set. I’m just tossing out nonsense, which means I’ll have to go back and make sense of it all, and that prospect is utterly daunting right now. The thought of having to continue writing, then go back and kill all my darlings, then repeat the whole thing over and over and over again makes me want to curl up in a tiny ball and start whimpering. The thought of then having to query and look for agents makes me want to crawl into the deepest, darkest cave I can find and start screaming.

Right now, writing isn’t very fun. And I really want it to be fun again. But I also want to, you know, finish stuff. Which I can’t do unless I keep going through this process of rolling the rock of Sisyphus up an endless hill.

So… yeah. Sorry this isn’t the uplifting peon of victory you may have been waiting for. I was hoping for one too. At the moment I’m just exhausted, discouraged, and so behind on so many things.

But at least I can binge-watch my Blu-ray of Good Omens now.

More Than I Can Chew…

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There’s a reason I’m not usually a pantser. Mostly it’s because I write myself into a corner. But it’s also because I hate feeling like I’m being inaccurate, even when it’s just the first draft. Or I just hate feeling like I’m floundering about, retreading old tropes, taking the easy way out.

Spells in Sepia (SiS) is tackling a lot of new ground for me, and it might be more than I can handle. I’m trying to just let go and write, but at the same time, I feel like I’m missing a lot of narrative opportunities, directions, and ideas because I don’t know enough about what I’m writing.

Unlike most of my other projects, this is an urban fantasy, so it’s supposed to take place in the real world. Our real world. For the most part, anyway. But there are a few hitches: Time, Place, and Character Career.

Continue reading “More Than I Can Chew…”

NaNoWriMo begins in 3…2…1…

Hi everyone! Yes, a random bonus entry in the middle of the week because I’m actually really excited about NaNoWriMo this year and want to keep up the momentum. I’m trying to get everything ready so I don’t have a bunch of loose ends hanging over my head on November 1st. Which means I’ve been cleaning and organizing while trying not to get sidetracked by episodes of Sapphire & Steel or by the cuteness of my kitties:

Chaos found a new bed while I was cleaning the NaNo Sanctum (a.k.a. my library).

So, to keep myself on track and accountable, here is my goal sheet for National Novel Writing Month 2019. (Note that a “session” consists of writing at least 500 words.)

Date:  10/30/2019

Top Priority:  Spells in Sepia (NaNaWriMo 2019 project – urban fantasy novel)

Action Steps:

  • Write 1,667 words daily (or as much as I can and make up for the shortfalls on other, more productive days)
  • Limit social contact (mostly meaning don’t talk to anyone before writing is done or I get derailed)
  • Get up at 7am daily (although I have no idea how I’ll pull this off since I’ve been having trouble getting up even by 8am)
  • Exercise Sunday-Friday (mostly light weights since the weather’s gone cold, but I’ll try to work some swimming in)
  • Saturday = rest day (I give myself permission to veg out and do whatever I want, even if that means not writing)
  • Complete chores regularly (meaning do the dishes right after I dirty them so they don’t pile up)
  • Update LeNoWriCha Logs @ 10pm (do I’m sure my writing is done for the day and can go to bed)
  • Limit social media (so I don’t spend all my time at home being distracted by the internet)
  • Rewards!
    • 1 small (7 oz) can of Dr. Pepper during each writing session
    • 1 small (fun-size) bag of peanut M&Ms for completing each writing session
    • Final reward for completing the month: binge-watching Good Omens!
  • This is a project for FUN! Don’t overthink it!

On The Radar:

  • Write With Focus:
    • Keep up with bi-weekly Cat’s Cradle entries
    • Be ready to continue writing or start editing in December
  • Read With Purpose:
    • Urban fantasy
    • Chinese myths
    • Photography techniques (especially forensic)
  • Build Your Community
    • Check HUB weekly
    • Check NaNo site/forums weekly
    • Write at Writers Mastermind on Mondays
    • Write at Waldo’s on Wednesdays (not sure if I’ll do this or not)
    • Write at “Come Write In” at library on Fridays
Goal Sheet courtesy of the DIY MFA program by Gabriela Pereira.

 

To all my fellow writers this November… good luck! Tally-ho!

“Useless English Major”

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Being an English major is a little of a running gag in my family. Out of all my siblings, I have the highest level of education and (so far) the most years in school. Yet I also make the least amount of money and have the lowest expectation of career advancement. Usually it’s just good-natured teasing, the way one expects from siblings. I indulge in it myself from time to time, but even my self-deprecating humor has taken on a sharper edge. As the years roll on, it just doesn’t seem funny anymore.

I recently read an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Is Majoring in English Worth It?” The contents were pretty much what I’d expected: a half-mocking look at how the value of an English degree has declined dramatically even as the cost of college exponentially increases, making it “the most regretted college major in America.” But I hadn’t expected the intense wave of bitterness that swept over me, a deep sense of resentment that something I spent six years, thousands of dollars, and untold amounts of stress attaining, a skill that I am good at, can be summarily dismissed as the butt of a bad joke.

So, like a good little Millennial, I shared some of my frustration on social media:

I got some sympathetic faces in response, which was about all I had expected. But then my friend David asked a very poignant question:

“If you had a time machine, what would you do differently?”

Continue reading ““Useless English Major””

New Territory for NaNoWriMo

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Modified from Masashi Wakui’s image on Pixabay

It was very strange to leave home all green and summery, going to the beach where it was a balmy 80 degrees and sunny, and then coming back home to find the leaves all yellow and orange with the scent of autumn in the air. This season has grown on me; I used to despise it because fall meant it was time to go back to school. While I still don’t like the cold, I can appreciate autumn much better now. Plus, as a compulsive hoarder of blankets, mugs, and sweaters, I can now put them to good use!

I didn’t get much writing done on vacation, but that’s okay. I actually had to remind myself multiple times that, being on vacation, I could do what I wanted to do rather than what I felt I should do. It’s a little depressing how many times I had to tell myself that. Still, I got about half a stack of books read, enjoyed the sun and surf, and came home to relax and play and review a bunch of otome game demos before returning to my day job.

One of my goals, however, was to decide what project I should work on for National Novel Writing Month 2019.

Continue reading “New Territory for NaNoWriMo”

The Problem With Chosen Ones

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“Foreshadowing”

The trope is endemic to fantasy literature. Especially middle grade and YA fantasy literature. How many times have we gone through the old song and dance of a single person who is “special,” who feels like an outsider or doesn’t fit in, and turns out to have special powers or is the long-lost heir to the fairy throne or some other trite nonsense that hangs the fate of the world on the decisions of a single hormonal teenager? (Nostalgia Critic’s review of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief covers a lot of the issues with this trope of “Wowed Teenagers” quite nicely.)

Now, to be fair, a lot of people do connect with this base character type, and as long as the story does something interesting with it, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the trope. For people just discovering works featuring that character type, it’s something new and unfamiliar to them. For people like me who have read a lot of fantasy and see the same tropes and cliches turn up over and over again without much variation, it can be a little grating. To each there own, of course, and I would prefer to see more variation. But a lot of people, especially those in the middle grade and YA audience, do feel like outcasts and want to be reminded that they to can be something special. It can be inspiring for them and help them discover their own talents.

But there’s a Dark Side to this emphasis on being a special, super-powered Chosen One. It can help reinforce two very unfortunate mental states: Magical Thinking and Delusions of Grandeur.

Continue reading “The Problem With Chosen Ones”

Breaking the Rules: C. J. Cherryh’s ‘Foreigner’ Novels

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Image from SF Signal

All writers have heard the adage “Show, don’t tell.” It’s one of the most ambiguous and frustrating pieces of writing advice I have ever received. After all, writing is all about words. How can you “show” something when the only way to communicate is by “telling” the reader what’s happening? You’re also supposed to make sure something is always happening to move the scene forward. You don’t start in a static or simple moment. You have to begin with a bang to get the reader’s attention! Where’s your momentum, people?

Now, I get what this advice is trying to say. “Show, don’t tell” encourages writers to not just give a play-by-play of the scene, a “Then she did this and then he said that and then they went here” style of story-telling. That’s acceptable for a four-year-old telling a story, but not for a novelist. You’re supposed to make it more dynamic, fluid, and engaging. And starting with a bang isn’t literal, but to avoid the cliche of having a character wake up in the morning or monologue to themselves. The devil, as always, is in the details of how exactly to do this.

It’s easy to then fall into the trap of thinking that these are iron-clad rules which cannot for the love of all that is literary be broken. Rules are useful as a framework, but it’s always nice to see how the rules can be bent or outright broken and still leave you with an engaging story. Enter the Foreigner series by C. J. Cherryh.

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Eight Years and Counting

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Image by Naturelady on Pixabay

I’m sitting on the front porch in a set of “I Love Coffee” pajamas, basking in the summer warmth. The wrens bring food to their babies nesting in one of the hanging flowerpots. (They are surprisingly loud for such little birds.) A copy of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress sits on a stool beside me, the bookmark nestled almost a quarter of the way through. It has been a quiet, lazy kind of day, and I dread returning to my day job tomorrow morning. Feels like I could use a few more days like this to just…chill. Reorganize. Reboot.

Continue reading “Eight Years and Counting”