Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lessons From Austin Powers

This week I finished reading a book I couldn't wait to get my hands on, because I loved the last book I'd read by the same author. It took me a couple months to read, though--sure, I've had other stuff going on to distract me, but I didn't have that can't-put-it-down feeling I get when I really, really love a book. You know the ones, where you look up at the end and notice your house is a mess and your family is hungry? Wasn't happening here. 

Although my writing so far has been only realistic fiction, I read all different genres, so I'm willing to do my share of suspending disbelief. Traveling in a spaceship to live on a new planet? Yeah, let's see what that's like. Vampires sitting at the next table in the cafeteria? Sure. I may even spend time debating whether I'd prefer a werewolf boyfriend or a vampire boyfriend. (Not saying I've done that. But if I did, I'd pick werewolf.) 

But in any book, the real-life stuff has to be believable. If it isn't, that's when I start thinking about Austin Powers. 

We can actually learn a lot about writing by watching that groovy international man of mystery and his nemesis, Dr. Evil:

"Start the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism!" Here's a great bit of dialog from the first movie, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, between Dr. Evil and son Scott:  

Dr. Evil: Scott, I want you to meet daddy's nemesis, Austin Powers.
Scott Evil: What? Are you feeding him? Why don't you just kill him?
Dr. Evil: I have an even better idea. I'm going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death. 

And later, when Austin and Vanessa are suspended above the tank they'll be lowered into:

Dr. Evil: All right guard, begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism.
Close the tank!
Scott: Wait, aren't you even going to watch them? They could get away!
Dr. Evil: No no no, I'm going to leave them alone and not actually witness them dying, I'm just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?
Scott: I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I'll get it, I'll come back down here, BOOM, I'll blow their brains out!
Dr. Evil: Scott, you just don't get it, do ya? You don't.

Is your antagonist acting like a parody of a villain? Are your readers going to feel annoyed and frustrated like Scott and yell at the book, "Why don't you just shoot him?" Of course, you don't want your protagonist to die or your story would be over. But if someone's out to get her, why don't they catch her right away? There has to be a reason they miss, a reason for the chase. Does the heroine somehow evade her pursuer, just when he's gotten close? That's suspenseful. Or does the villain have a chance to stop her, but let her go because he's holding out for something more dramatic? That's Dr. Evil. If the bad guys are out to get us, they're not going to wait around for sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads.

"A lot's changed since 1967." Technology and language changes from one year to the next, even. Unless it's meant to add authenticity to a historical setting, avoid using slang that can make your book seem dated within a couple years. If your character's dialog doesn't ring true--he no longer sounds like himself, he's talking like his mom or like someone who grew up in the 80s instead of now--you pull your readers right out of the story. Keep up with what's going on in the world and with your audience so you won't sound like someone who's been cryogenically frozen for thirty years.

"You're semi-evil. You're quasi-evil. You're the margarine of evil. You're the diet Coke of evil. Just one calorie, not evil enough." The Austin Powers movies have no shortage of one-dimensional bad guys. Dr. Evil and is henchmen are funny in the movie, but we don't want our own characters do be accidentally funny caricatures with all the emotional depth of Fembots. If characters have no flaws or weak moments, readers don't feel like they know them, because they don't know anyone who's all good or all bad. Don't you feel more connected to a story when you see what a character seems familiar to you? 

Think about the villains people love, or love to hate. Why is Hannibal Lecter such a memorable and convincing bad guy? None of us would want him living next door, but he's intriguing. If he were repulsive at every moment we'd turn away, but we see his human side too. He loves classical music. He's respectful to Clarice Starling, even cares about her, although they're on opposite sides of the law. (For more on how Hannibal Lecter can help with character development, here's a great post I came across on Suite 101.) 

If we saw Hannibal's evil plotting only, he'd be forgettable or laughable. We remember Hannibal; we laugh at Snidely Whiplash and Dr. Evil. 

Hey, where did that come from? That's something your readers should never have to ask. A character can defend herself with a nearby object if it fits the setting and we're not seeing it for the first time. We have to see the object in an earlier scene so we're not taken aback when it conveniently shows up right when she needs it. We're okay with the henchman Random Task throwing a shoe at Austin Powers in Goldmember, because it was introduced earlier as his weapon of choice, however ridiculous. But if your heroine grabs a pool cue from her car trunk during a fight and informs us just then that she was planning on taking pool lessons, we're going to be confused and annoyed by the deus ex machina-ness of the scene.

In this comical fight scene from Goldmember, some of the objects used as weapons make sense, like the mini bottle that Mini-Me grabs from the hotel minibar, but things like the inexplicable frying pan add to the absurdity of the scene.

Avoid the frying pan.

There are probably many more lessons we can learn from the smashing Austin Powers, but these are just a few to keep in mind while writing and revising. We give our story the attention it deserves when we work to create well-rounded, three-dimensional characters who act and speak in ways that make sense, within a setting that makes sense.

Putting in all that effort isn't the easy way out, but it's worth all the work you put into it. 'Cause when you get it right, it's a beautiful as sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their frickin' heads.

Now stay shagadelic, babies!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Swaggerin' In A Winter Wonderland

We woke up to find this post from agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe in which she was looking especially...purple. And sparkly. She's always a ninja, as you can see from her epic battle scenes and as evidenced by her contract negotiation battle scars, but now she's looking even more stylish than usual. And she can keep warm.

Jo really liked the picture of Monica & me in our Snuggies in my agent celebration post, so we thought she might like one of her own. But we couldn't just get her a plain one. Even the animal print ones weren't unique enough. Thankfully we came across some inspiration from Lara Zielin's Bluggie commercial

Perfect! We shall decorate a Snuggie!

And what should we have embroidered on it? Her name, or a special title? What do you call someone who takes a manuscript you've written and entices editors to make a deal with her when she leans against an office wall asking, "Hey, need a book? I got just what you need."

Yes, that works nicely! It actually turned out more bejeweled than pictured here by the time I sent it-- there were a few stray spots of the super-duper adhesive I used, and nothing was going to remove it. So...cover with more jewels! (There's probably a writing lesson in there somewhere about revising or something. Perhaps that'll be another post.)

Here are the sleeves:

This is truly one of those times when it's better to give than receive; we had a lot of fun making this and we've been giggling about it for weeks.

To all of our agents, editors, friends and readers out there, may your days be sparkly and bright, and may all your Christmases be gold-embroidered.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

It's December!

November is over and you know what that not Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, not buying and wrapping and mailing, not cards and cooking and parties.

It means PiBoIdMo is over...YAY! That's Picture Book Idea Month in case you were wondering.

It means I wrote down an idea, title, detail, character or plot for each day in know, 30 wacked out, ridiculous, hilarious, sensational and best selling ideas.

This was the brain child of Tara Lazar and has caught on like hula hoops, pet rocks, and Beanie Babies. Everyday we read a post to inspire our creativity. These were wonderful and meant I could still be as silly as I wanted even though the last time I played Hi Ho Cherry-O, tried to lick my elbow, or turned a somersault was many a year ago!

Oh, the word possibilites to ponder...animals, names, aliens, the ocean, outer space, bugs, yo-yos, sparklers, monsters, and on and on and on. It was a chance to think short and crazy, long and hazey or even square and mazey!

I took my ideas to the Cakers at critique yesterday for an out loud reading. It's funny how they all seemed to agree on which ones appealed the most. And it also showed me which ones to consider first. The support I get from the Cakers is delicious. I'm fired up , ready to write, eternally hopeful as all writers must be.

Look out December, Doris is writing more than she is wrapping!