Tuesday, August 27, 2013

BLAM and the Author's Knowledge

"....a very bizarre scene in an otherwise normal story that veers off into the surreal or strange. Upon exiting that scene, the plot continues on like it never happened. "
-->TvTropes Defines the Term

This week's post is about the trope known as the "Big Lipped Alligator Moment" (BLAM). While normally I would say Tropes Are Tools this one is hard to use for a positive effect.  It is confusing, messes up the story's pacing, bogs down the plot, and otherwise lowers the story's quality. The one successful  occasion I can list is the manga "BoboboboBobobo" because it is a string of these and the appeal of the story is absurdist humor and even then it turns many people off.

These can result from a disconnect between the writer's knowledge (who knows everything about the story) and the reader's knowledge (who learns page by page). This is called the "Curse of Knowledge", a situation where an expert is so deep into their field that what they believe are the basics are more like '3.0' to a layman.  I took a class in college that compared comics to illuminated poetry and it we talked about how Jack Kirby would draw things that looked outlandish or out of place and I argued that he might have backstory for these things but doesn't have the space to talk about it in the story. "What the author knows about the story is a fraction of what he can tell about the story." Thus, what makes sense to the writer doesn't make sense to the reader.

This is why Beta Readers are important. To illustrate I will share an experience I had with A Mage's Power.

In the first chapter I had a several page scene that has been compared to "Alice in Wonderland" sandwiched between two scenes from a typical day in Eric's mundane life. Being the author, I knew all about Tasio's motives and how this fit into the rules governing the Verse but both positive and negative reviewers disliked it. I was loathed to cut it out because I viewed it as important. Then I received a review that went into detail about why it was bad and I removed it. In the entire book, this scene was referenced only once more. It's then that I realized it was dead weight. I wish I had somoene to point that out earlier and thus the need for a beta reader.

For a related topic, see The Proper Application Of Mind Screws

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Answering Review Request: Welcome to Harmony

James Trumpis asked me to read "Welcome to Harmony". It's about a werewolf boy with human parents moving to a new town where he meets other supernatural folk. I will examine plot, characters, and polish and then assign a grade.


There isn't much of a plot. While there is a single plot thread that connects the events together and forms a satisfying climax, it does not inform the meat of the book. Therefore, Slice-Of-Life is more appropriate to describe this story. One chapter is about werewolf training, another is about a school dance and a third is about hanging out with a ghost from the sixties. I like this for two reasons; 1.) It makes for a intriguing mundane fantastic setting and 2.) It's anti-epic.

The world building for Harmony is fascinating. Mr. Trumpis creates societies for the supernatural elements in his story. For instance, vampires are organized by elders and their territories ('regions') and they are policed by the Red League. I'd like to see more of that in future books. Second, there's backstory. For instance, Harmony has so many supernaturals because a family of mages founded it as a gathering point for their coven. If Mr. Trumpis ever writes a prequel for their immigration from the old world to Harmony, I'd read it. Both of these are under a masquerade but there never seems to be a fine line between the supernatural and the mundane; it's just one more culture among many. There's lots of other stuff mentioned or started in one of the chapters but it was never developed enough for me. Indeed, the only problem with the world building is that there was never enough of it. I wanted to see more.
The book has an 'anti-epic' air in that the story events are low-key. Vampires do not stalk the night and eat people (usually). Instead they obtain blood from willing donors like someone ordering a speciality drink. Werewolves fight monsters on the town's borders but consider this a routine chore to defend their territory. The climax is the most emotionally charged and high stakes affair in the story and it's SPOILERS!

There are also things that I do not like about this plot. They are obsession with reader identification and that the Slice of Life events are a flash in the pan.

Significant time is spent making Dillon 'relatable'. Aside from page number 1, the first twenty or so pages are about the mundane everyman aspects of Dillon. There is talk about how Dillon's parents don't understand him, and how they are obsessed wotj being a normal sociable etc family and Dillon indulging in things like World of Warcraft and dealing with boring classes and bullies etc.This veneer broken by accident which leads me to assume rule of drama.  On one hand this helps to establish the 'anti epic' tone stated above but all too often this is used in some lame plot device to get the reader to identify with the protagonist and pretend to be them. It's easy to get the wrong idea and become bored in the first two dozen pages or so.
The story events come and go quickly. Many of the chapters are short and so they do not feel fully formed. The Valentine Dance is one such example; it happens without mention or preamble, introduces a conflict, and then ends. One could argue this is more realistic but it still comes out of nowhere and feels like an Aborted Arc because it drifts into an unrelated plot point. Other examples are not like this; the ghost house for instance has a formal beginning middle and end complete with the introduction and resolution of conflict.

There is a curious split in characterization between the mundane characters and the supernatural characters. The former are bland and the latter are better rounded.

Because of the mundane opening and first person narration, Dillon feels like a bland everyman for a good chunk of the book. The first arc is about him as a featureless narrator with parent problems. Then the next several story events are his introduction to the various supernatural elements of Harmony which make him an Audience Surrogate. By the end of the book this is no longer the case and I came to like his personality but the start remains bland. Miles is little better; scrawny, socially awkward, spents a lot of time with video games and in short a stereotypical nerd. Like Dillon his personality is better developed and rounded by the end of the book but at first he feels like a complimentary everyman to Dillon.

The same is true with their parents; I can't tell Dillon's parents apart because they act and think in the same way. Miles' Dad sounds like a red neck and and his mother doesn't have any personality at all.

The Sullivan family, on the other hand, are great. The twins have their sibling bickering but are not defined by it. They have werewolf traits but they are not defined by those either. Their father has more personality then Dillon and Miles' dads put together (Reasonable Authority Figure, Good Dad, fan of the Rolling Stones). Their mom is similarly developed. I could say the same for Kessler (the vampire Elder) and his two vampire wards or for Gabby and her sorcerer family.

It makes sense to avoid wasting time on unimportant characters but because the mundanes are the first ones introduced it was a turn off for me and the split bothered me.


I didn't notice anything in the way of spelling errors but the rest is more complicated. First of all, this is a first person narration so the punctuation will be different; no one thinks in perfect grammar but personally, I don't like it.
Another issue is the teenager voice. Another reviewer stated that Mr.Trumpis speaks the 'tween' language and I am suspicious of any adult that says another adult can talk teenager. I left Dillon's age group a decade ago and even I think it's dated.  However, Shawn is proof that Mr.Trumpis is aware that teenage slang changes over time. Shawn was a teenager in the sixties and hasn't aged since then because he's a ghost so he speaks differently then Dillon and Dillon notices the difference.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Welcome to Harmony" a B.

Click here for the next review request: "The Amber Treasure"

Click here for the previous review request: "Leah and the Jackhammer"

Monday, August 12, 2013

Inspirational Monday: Reviews Part 2 (Positive)

The first Monday of every month is Inspirational Monday. Share something that inspires you. (I'm a week late this month due to certain issues, anyway!)

This month I'm going to talk about reviews, specifically good reviews.  In a previous post I talked about negative reviews and how important it is to embrace negative reviews. I'm talking about the 'I didn't like this book because of X, Y, and Z' reviews' and not the 'this book is (expletive)' reviews. Those latter reviews are worthless but the former are helpful for fine tuning of one's craft. Useful as they are they are not inspiring. The inspiring reviews are the good ones.

There is one review on my amazon page that tells me not to be discourage by negative reviews and others on this very blog ask when Looming Shadow (the sequel to A Mage's Power) is coming out.These raises my spirits every time I see them for an excited fanbase is what all authors want to see.

There are other reviews that compares my trickster figure, Tasio, to tricksters in other media such as Marvel Comics' Loki and Star Trek's Q. I'm fans of both of those characters so this is high praise indeed. It makes me want to write more.

Finally, there are those who like my setting. I had a number of goals when writing A Mage's Power and greatest among them was to create a Magical Modern world; a world that was similar to 21th century real life but with magic out in the open and integrated into the society. When someone tells me I succeeded, that is a tremendous high for me.

On a related note, I've revised my book reviewer policy.  If you wish for a critical and honest review of your book,  post a comment on the book reviewer page and provide your email. I hope I can provide you with the same inspiration other reviews have given me

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Proper Application of Mind Screws

On Tvtropes we call confusing symbolism a 'Mind Screw' because a reader can twist themselves into cerebral knots trying to figure it out. Today's post is about it's Tropes Are Tools aspect.. This level of confusion and symbolism can be great for discussion and comedy but it can also alien an audience or feel like a cop-out.

On one hand there is the discussion. A story can be made more engaging with puzzle pieces that do not quite link up and symbolish that suggests one thing or another to persuade the reader to read further to find more pieces. This is one reason mysteries why are so popular: 'find the next piece; what does it mean; who does the evidence point to now? Can we infer a motive?' A surreal mystery takes this one step further by placing reality itself into question. Now the story can take all sorts of turns and each scene could have several meanings and interpretations. TvTropes is not the only place where people gather to discuss 'what this represents; what is the symbolism of that; what the heck happened'? If an author can get people talking about their work, that's great. If they can get people to discuss their work, that's even better because it shows a greater degree of involvement in the work.

For instance, the anime FLCL is infamous for its absurdity that is also symbolic. TvTropes records the following axiom"If you wish to understand FLCL, watch the series from beginning to end, and
the desire will pass." Indeed, it may take a few viewings to notice that there is a plot at all. It is a favorite for both the Adult Swim programing block and its audience. Not only is it strange but it is also outrageously funny.

When used in a certain way symbols and surrealism can be used for comedy. My rule of thumb is 'if it is absurd than it is funny'. By cranking up the symbolism to super heavy levels, providing lampshading, and/or have some of it mean jack shit, you can have your audience wondering if you're on drugs. If they enjoy it, they may ask where they can get some. The goal is to make them laugh at the outright weirdness or chuckle at the more subtle implications. However, there is danger here.

The use of this tool can backfire on its author. Ever since The Death Of The Author, literary critics and fans alike have decided that the author is not the final authority on a work's meaning. There could be Unfortunate Implications or some funky alternative reading that has nothing to do with what the author was trying to communicate and someone could promote this against the author's wishes. While there's no such thing as bad publicity, do you want to be publicized as something you detest?

I have personal experience with this trope gone wrong as both a reader and a writer. 
As a reader, I took a class in college that analyzed Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and the TA gave a lecture exclusively about the alleged Freudian symbolism and how the main character hates sex.  The bulk of this takes place before the monster is created and the rest largely ignored.

As a writer I tried something like this trope in A Mage's Power. In the first chapter, I put my protagonist through a series of scenario inspired by the Classical Greek Elements: fire, water earth, air, and others.  This was supposed to be an examination of his character by Tasio to see if he could survive the coming adventure and grow into something greater than his current state, and at the same time, develop his character in a way that would be impossible in his mundane surroundings. Instead, a number of reviews (both good and bad) state that the first chapter was confusing. I got the impression that of all the chapters they liked it the least. This is the opposite of what a writer wants to see in reviews.

Tropes are Tools; I advise my fellow writers to use this one wisely.