Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Sequel, Part 2

     What makes a sequel good; not just enjoyable but also a proper, worthy and satisfying continuation?  Seems to me that the key is partially in that last word, "continuation."  There ought to be, first of all, a sense that the characters from the first story have grown, moved forward.  Die Hard 2, for example, is great fun, but not much of a continuation.  The Empire Strikes Back, on the other hand, absolutely continues the development of the main characters (okay, mainly Luke) and relies not only on the fact that you know who they had been, but required that knowledge to create the narrative.
      At the same time, a sequel ought to offer an expanding and a deepening.  You can expand the vision of the world the story takes place in (again, the Empire Strikes Back does this quite nicely as does, for instance, Beneath the Planet of the Apes), but more significantly, the themes that the first one explored should be expanded, given greater weight, examination and perspective.  This expansion would, by its nature, also deepen one's understanding of the thematic undercurrents, which is crucial to a satisfying story.  Are themes whose depths have already been plumbed in the first story really that resonant for being retread in the second?  Notably, I don't think this thematic expansion necessarily requires that the story take on a larger scope.  Indeed, it seems sometimes that if you make the sequel a tighter, more intense narrative it can aid in deeper explorations of character and theme.  Philip Pullman's the Subtle Knife, sequel to the Golden Compass, is a great example of this.
     In discussions of sequels, you often hear about how there is a demand to both give audiences/readers what they expect but also to surprise them.  That has a very superficial ring to me.  It seems to suggest that people want their expectations met but with a twist so they feel like they got their money's worth.  Pushing this idea a little farther down the path, what you really have are audiences who want to visit characters they already know and like and be surprised by these characters in a way that feels fresh but also appropriate to their growth.  Honestly, there's nothing about that that's particularly special to sequel-telling.  Who doesn't want a story with good characters and a good surprise?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Sequel, Part 1

     Those That Wake is going to have a sequel.  The first draft is done and the editing process begins.  A great deal of work was done on Those That Wake before it was published, though the structure, the themes and the nature of the characters all remained essentially intact (which is a real tribute to my agent, who was my de facto editor).  This makes me curious to see how much of the sequel, as it stands now, will make it to the published version.  I don't suppose anyone loves the idea of their writing being shifted, massaged, altered or transformed, but I will say that Those That Wake was far, far superior in its published form (that's the whole idea, after all).  Next post, I'll throw out some ideas for what I believe makes a good sequel.  For now, I plan to check back in with the sequel over the course of its pre-publishing process and note significant changes.  I hope this will offer some small glimpse into a process that always (to me, at least) seemed opaque.  The first thing on the potential chopping block: the title.  The original title of Those That Wake did not last long (and with good reason, I might add), so we'll see how this one does.  As of now, the sequel's title is The Unmade Man.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Antihero

     I hear the term antihero getting thrown around pretty loosely.  What people seem to mean when they use the word is a protagonist who -- while still embodying the classically heroic traits of determination, competence and honor -- fights against the standard social structures or status quo rather than fighting to support them.   This sort of antihero seems more and more commonplace as people become less and less enchanted with the status quo.  It is, of course, easy to root for a hero who fights against the social structures that seem to be holding us back or seems to be making the world a darker and more unkind place.  I came across a very enjoyable presentation of this sort of antihero recently in Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones's Marvel Boy, a teenage alien (completely human-looking though his alien DNA has been spliced with that of a cockroach) who, in retaliation for the death of his crew, let's The Man have it but good.
     What I hardly ever see is an antihero in the alternate sense.  That is, a protagonist who embodies characteristics that are antithetical to those of the classic hero.  Little wonder there, as it is difficult to get a readership or an audience to root for a character who is cowardly, vain, greedy or cruel even if that character is also compelling in other ways.  This sort of antihero is not essentially equivalent to a villain as, ironically, really good villains tend to share many admirable traits with the hero (who wants to see a great hero go up against a villain who doesn't match up to him or her?).  One fine example of an antihero of this variety is Verloc in Conrad's The Secret Agent, who possess relatively few (if any) heroic characteristics, but remains a riveting protagonist.
     A truly shocking example of antiheroism (the most shocking I've ever seen, anyway) is in Thomas Harris's Red Dragon.  Will Graham is, on the surface, a classic flawed hero, dragged back into a heroic role he left behind because it requires him to use an ability which is far more a curse than a gift.  For practically the whole book we follow Will's pursuit of a serial killer and are in his corner the entire time.  At the very end of the book, however, during the final confrontation, Will does something I've never seen another hero (or antihero) do.  I'm not going to say what it is (that would ruin Mr. Harris's powerful climax), but I will say that it can only be seen in the book as neither movie version (Manhunter nor Red Dragon) would dare to reproduce it (neither, for that matter, does the Wikipedia summary I linked to above).  Only in a truly heroic milieu, it seems, can you really plumb the depths of antiheroism.   

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"We Will Not Be Shushed"

     Starting Saturday, June 11 at 5:00 P.M. and running to Sunday, June 12th at 5:00 P.M.  is a twenty-four hour read-in to protest the massive funding cut to Brooklyn Public Library.  The event, called "We Will Not Be Shushed," will be held at Brooklyn Public Library Central at 10 Grand Army Plaza.  Something on the order of one hundred authors will be doing readings. 
     Incidentally, 8:00 A.M. to 12:00 P.M. on Sunday morning is devoted to children and young adult readings.  Among the many worthwhile authors, I will be reading a selection from Those That Wake at 10:15 A.M.  If you're in the area, please stop by at that or any time to lend support to this very worthy cause.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Work More

     I happened to catch a report on CNN the other day about how Americans are workaholics.  The report began by comparing the U.S. to countries such as France, where a greater number of vacation days are available (and government-mandated) and people actually take full advantage of them.  In the U.S. by comparison, the commonly allotted 14 days of vacation a year are not even completely used on the average.  Just when it looked like they might be suggesting that Americans could benefit psychologically from being less work-obsessed, CNN comes in with location reports from Japan and Korea, where the people seem to be far more work-oriented still.  Apparently there are fewer vacation days offered there and even those fewer days tend not to be used by 50% of the population because it can be seen as dishonorable not to leave those vacation days on the table.  The conclusion left one very much with a sense of "hey, don't feel too bad, America, there are places that have it much worse.  In fact, maybe you're not working quite enough, after all."
      Now, granted this is my reading of it and maybe I tend to look for hidden messages where none are intended.  But it did get me to thinking, if their are hidden messages in what is treated as a light weight human interest report from a respected new source, is there any kind of media communication that doesn't have something riding beneath the surface?
     I wrote a book and, without a doubt, I'm trying to send a message with it.  And, sure, I hope that I can change people's minds, get them thinking about things in a way which (I believe) could improve their lives, society, the future, etc.  But am I trying to manipulate readers?  My story is certainly weighted to help prove my point, but is my message hidden?  Would some people who disagreed with my point of view consider the message to be hidden within ostensible entertainment, somehow insidious?
     A person can start to sound a bit paranoid (especially if the person actually is, as people have assured me I am, a bit paranoid), but all I'm really trying to get at is the idea that there's a difference between intentional messages that you're meant to see and intentional messages that are meant to reach you without you knowing about it.  The line is fine and the less you agree with a given message, the more blurry that line may become.  My point, as always, is that it's good to pay attention to what you're seeing, hearing and is happening around you.  And you can be sure it's no accident that that's the same message I tried to put across in my book.