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Do you suffer from procrastination? Never get around to finishing that novel? Spend more time imagining and jotting down every little detail of your fictional world than you do writing the story itself?

Then story outlines are probably not for you.

I know a lot of people will say to plan out your story and whatnot but I’ve always frowned upon this. For clarity’s sake, I consider outlines/planning to be anything related to the story that isn’t actually writing the story itself.

Ok, so planning stuff gives you an idea of where to go with the story, and keeps you “on track”, but consider this: have you ever stuck to your original plan? For me, that’s an easy no. As I write, new ideas come up and they are inexplicably more brilliant in their brief creation than anything I could have planned beforehand. Sure, my beginning and end usually stay the same, and maybe even some major plot points, but it’s a writhing, winding road between these.

Think of it this way. Nothing, and I mean nothing, you write in a plan or outline will ever be read by anyone except yourself. It doesn’t contribute to the story at all – the purpose of a plan is just a crude note to yourself to remind you of things. Despite this, I see people caught up in extravagant world building, from the terrain of the entire planet (when the story only takes place in a few cities), to religion, governments and other aspects that are not directly tied into the story. Worse, sometimes amateurs will consciously realise how much effort they’ve put into the plan and will try to incorporate it into the story somehow. This results in huge infodumps which are a big no-no in writing.

But I think the one thing that really epitomises the uselessness of planning is the use of “character profiles”. Really? Is it that important to know every character’s exact height to the centimetre? Their exact weight? Or, worse, their “likes and dislikes”. Let me tell you now, if you can capture your character in the brief confines of a profile then your character is weak and shallow. Further, the majority of your profile is literally useless and is really just a tool for wishful self-fulfilment to allow the “writer” to feel as if they’ve created a story with a set of strong characters when in reality the story is only in their heads. It’s not a story until you start writing it.

So am I saying everyone should stop planning? No, of course not. It works for some people because they know how to do it. However, I guarantee these people don’t sweat the insignificant stuff. A pre-writing outline should be a few key scenes jotted down. No detail – just the concepts. Your goal is to move the story from the beginning scene to the end scene, and I guarantee that along the way your plans will change more times than you can count. If you really are a dedicated writer, your story will plague your mind. Haunt you while you breathe and sleep. You shouldn’t need any plan to remember the important things in your story. At most, as you write, you should jot down specific numbers, features and directions so that you can keep them consistent throughout the story. You don’t want your characters changing hair colour half way through the story, or a city teleporting to another location. That’s about it.

Seriously though, just remember. Your plan is just to remind yourself of things. No one’s going to read it. Put your effort into the story itself.

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This one’s inspired by a conversation I had today. Someone saw the bandage on my wrist and asked what happened, to which I responded that I tore a ligament whilst boxing. He said I should take anti-inflammatories to fix it. Me, being a know-it-all, said that anti-inflammatories wouldn’t help since my swelling is already gone. He proceeded to say “are you a doctor?”, then claimed to have worked as one at various private gyms. Unwilling to match wits with someone in their own field, I shrugged it off and went home to do some research.

Well, turns out I’m right (as per usual). I don’t know if he was actually a doctor or not but in your face random guy, you’re wrong. Anti-inflammatories inhibit the production of prostaglandins, which is a chemical released by the tissue that causes swelling and increase the electrical pain signal from the damaged area. Basically, it’s a pain killer that can reduce swelling. It does not help with tissue repair. In fact, it can inhibit recovery by blocking protein synthesis (Dr. Hakan Alfredson). So not only was I right, the guy trying to prove me wrong was totally arguing in the wrong direction. Here’s some more proof (NSAID stands for Non Steroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs):

In spite of the widespread use of NSAIDs there is no convincing evidence as to their effectiveness in the treatment of acute soft tissue injuries.” (Bruckner, P. Clinical Sports Medicine. New York City, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1995, pp. 105-109.)

NSAIDs have been shown to delay and hamper the healing in all the soft tissues, including muscles, ligaments, tendons, and cartilage. Anti-inflammatories can delay healing and delay it significantly, even in muscles with their tremendous blood supply. In one study on muscle strains, Piroxicam essentially wiped out the entire inflammatory proliferative phase of healing (days 0-4). At day two there were essentially no macrophages (cells that clean up the area) in the area and by day four after the muscle strain, there was very little muscle regeneration compared to the normal healing process. The muscle strength at this time was only about 40 percent of normal.(Greene, J. Cost-conscious prescribing of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for adults with arthritis. Archives of Internal Medicine. 1992; 152:1995-2002.)

Muscles injuries treated with Flurbiprofen (NSAID) were significantly weaker. The muscle fibers were shown under the microscope to have incomplete healing because of the medication. (Almekinders, L. An in vitro investigation into the effects of repetitive motion and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication on human tendon fibroblasts. American Journal of Sports Medicine. 1995; 23:119-123.)

I have heaps more but I doubt anybody will read it all. Suffice to say, anti-inflammatories are bad.

I realise I’m tooting my own horn a bit here but I find it very satisfying when I find out somebody trying to prove me wrong was wrong all along, and this event is still fresh in my mind (happened a few hours ago).

Well, the moral of this story is that anti-inflammatories do not speed up the recovery process, and in fact are more likely to slow it down. They have also been linked to some other health issues lately. I won’t get into them, but you can Google “side effects of anti-inflammatories” if you’re interested. The other moral of this story is:

Well, what should you take if not anti-inflammatories? As a true scholar, I know when to draw the line and say there is a limit to my knowledge. Honestly, it depends on what the injury is. Personally, I avoid all drugs. I haven’t taken any medication for the past 9 years and have only felt stronger every year. I catch a cold about once a year and it goes away within a week. I have some permanent injuries but since I learned more about nutrition, the pain has been mostly absent. This is my own personal approach – I’m not saying all drugs are bad for you, but if you can avoid it, then avoid it. I don’t think it’s good for your body to be popping pills like candy. I know for a fact that people who take painkillers often have a much lower pain threshold (another reason why I never take painkillers).

What do I do during recovery if I don’t rely on pills? Well, I do all the scientifically sound stuff like increase protein intake (as your body needs the amino acids to repair damaged tissue), increase or maintain a good level of micronutrients and other essential fatty acids (omega 3 being a good one), follow the RICE procedure (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate) for the following three days to a week after injury, and engage in rehabilitation exercises for the injured area to rebuild flexibility and functional strength. See, these things make more sense don’t they? Pssh. Anti-inflammatories my foot.

We’ve all heard of electrolytes, especially since sports drinks tend to market themselves as “scientific” and throw around “scientific” words to make themselves sound more impressive. In reality, electrolytes are substances that become ions in the blood stream and the balance of electrolytes in our system is essential for the function of cells and organs. They are used to conduct electricity and carry electrical impulses such as nerve impulses and muscle contractions. The kidneys work to keep electrolyte levels in your blood constant. You lose electrolytes through sweat, which is why sports drinks emphasise that they replace electrolytes. Let’s take a look at some of the electrolytes in your body before we take a look at some sports drinks and what they actually contain.

The major electrolytes in your body are:

–          Sodium (Na+)

–          Chloride (Cl-)

–          Potassium (K+)

–          Calcium (Ca2+)

–          Magnesium (Mg2+)

–          Phosphate (PO42-)

–          Bicarbonate (HCO3-)

–          Sulfate (SO42-)

Sodium:

Sodium is one of the major positive ion (cation) in fluid outside of cells. Many of you are probably familiar with sodium chloride, which is the scientific name for table salt. Sodium regulates the water levels in the body, which is why those trying to lose weight should avoid salt as much as possible as it causes water retention (excess salt is a big dietary problem; salt deficiency is very uncommon). The brain, nervous system and muscles require electrical signals to communicate, thus a good sodium level is critical for proper function.

An increase in sodium, known as hypernatremia, occurs when there is excess sodium in relation to water (which is why everyone recommends drinking more water). By contrast, a decrease in sodium level is known as hyponatremia. The normal blood sodium level is 135 – 145 mmol/L (millimoles / Litre).

Potassium:

This is another major cation found in cells. It helps regulate heartbeat and muscle function. Abnormal changes in potassium levels can impact on the nervous system and cause irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), which can be fatal.

An increase in potassium levels is known as hyperkalemia and a decrease is known as hypokalemia. Potassium is normally excreted by the kidneys, so diseases that affect the kidneys can cause either one of these. The normal blood potassium level is 3.5 – 5.0 mmol/L.

Chloride:

This is the major negatively charged ion (anion) found in the fluid outside of cells and in the blood. Sea water has almost the same concentration of chloride ions as human body fluids. An increase in chloride levels is known as hyperchloremia while a decrease is known as hypochloremia. The normal range for chloride is 98 – 108 mmol/L

Bicarbonate:

This ion acts as a buffer to maintain the pH level in blood and other bodily fluid. It acts to regulate acidity levels in the body and the normal range is 22 – 30 mmol/L.

 

Powerade and Conclusion:

I have a bottle of this with me right now, so let’s take a look at the ingredients. All sports drinks are roughly the same so I’ll just focus on Powerade since I have the bottle with me and since its nutritional table is more helpful than the Gatorade one. In terms of the electrolyte content, per serving there is 7.2mmol of sodium and 2.4mmol of potassium (where a serving size is 600mL). The ingredients list sodium chloride, which we all know is just salt, and to cover up the salty taste it lists sucrose, which is basically table sugar. Sucrose is a simple carbohydrate; I’ll leave it at that for now. The drink also contains high fructose corn syrup and sucrose syrup.

Essentially, the two drinks are meant to help maintain electrolyte and carbohydrate balance through salt and sugar. That’s also the problem. If you’ve heard anything about the state of the Western diet and its health problems, you’ll know that salt and sugar are the two worst things happening to people right now. This is compounded by the fact that to restore carbohydrates, these drinks use simple carbs.

Now if we keep in mind that this is sports drink, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Athletes are less likely to have an excess of sodium chloride in their diets (as opposed to the rest of the world) and a quick hit of carbs during exercise can help prevent catabolism and facilitate refuelling. The only concern I would have in this regard is that despite marketing itself as an electrolyte replenisher, sports drinks only contain two of the most common electrolytes because they’re just using common salt.

The problem is that the drink is available to anybody. It sits in the drink section as if it were just another drink. A lot of drinks have sugar in it already, but sports drink also have salt, making things worse. The contents include sucrose syrup (liquefied table sugar) which is high in empty calories. Powerade actually has less sugar in it than Gatorade, but let’s take a look at Gatorade (because I have the numbers from a study here). Gatorade contains 14g of sugar per 100g, which is equivalent to about 3.3 teaspoons of sugar. The entire bottle (which is one serving) will give you 8 teaspoons of sugar. Additionally, the high fructose corn syrup content has been shown to significantly and independently increase risk of hypertension in people with no previous history of the disease (American Society of Nephrology, 2009). Imagine a regular person adding all this to their diet because they perceive the sports drink as being healthier than the soft drink.

In fact, even if you are an athlete and regularly exercise, I still would not recommend sports drinks at any time other than when you are actually in the middle of exercising. This is the only time where a sugar and salt hit will not necessarily be bad for you, but the other ingredients still make the benefits of the drink questionable. All in all, I would still go for just water and maybe a quick, bite sized snack like fruit or nuts. Personally, I carry a bag of almonds around and just pop a few in my mouth while I’m at the gym. The protein and calorie content of almonds are amazing for building muscle.

 

Been a while since I did a post on health so I’m here to drop knowledge bombs on the fat topic. My first post on health is too long and cluttered so I’m going to break things down to more bite-sized portions.

Let’s start with most important fact, something that a lot of people don’t know and have health issues because of: not all fat is bad. In fact, some fats are good for you. As in, actively help your health. Here’s something to think about. In the 1960s, fats and oils supplied Americans with 46% of their calories. At this time, about 13% of adults were obese and less than 1% had type 2 diabetes. Compare that with today where Americans only get about 33% of their calories from fats and oils, yet 34% of adults are obese and 11% have diabetes (stats sourced from Harvard).

So, what’s the deal here? Well, like I said, not all fat is bad. By reducing fat intake, people have also cut out good fats, and have replaced these with simple carbs (white bread, rice, etc.) which is a bad combination. Weight loss/gain is determined by the amount of calories. Other health issues depend on where these calories come from (fat, grains, etc.); for example, cholesterol levels can rise due to an increased intake of saturated fats, but you can still lose weight while eating saturated fats if you reduce your daily calorie intake. What’s that mean? Well, if you want to look good and be healthy, you need to watch what you eat and how much you eat. If you just want to look good for the short term (because if you’re unhealthy, you’re not going to look good for long), you can just eat less and not really watch what you’re eating (although some foods are far more calorie-dense than others).

How fat works:

So, let’s take a look at how fat works; fat is actually an important nutrient. Your body runs on three fuel sources, carbohydrates, protein and fat. I won’t go into detail here, that’s for another post, but basically fat provides 9 calories per gram whereas carbs and protein only provide 4. Fat is therefore a great source and store of energy. It also influences insulin sensitivity (will go into detail about this in another post) and can address inflammations. The body also uses cholesterol as the starting point to make estrogen, testosterone, vitamin D and other vital compounds.

However, fat and cholesterol don’t dissolve in water or blood, so the body packages fat and cholesterol into protein-covered particles called lipoproteins. These can dissolve into the blood stream. There are many types but the most important ones are low-density lipoproteins, high-density lipoproteins and triglycerides.

Low Density Lipoproteins (LDLs):

These carry cholesterol from the liver to the rest of the body. Cells latch on to the LDLs to extract fat and cholesterol from them. However, when there is too much LDL cholesterol in the blood, they begin to form deposits on the walls of arteries (called plaque), which narrows the arteries and limits blood flow. When plaque breaks apart, it can cause a heart attack or stroke. Because of this, LDL cholesterol is often referred to as bad cholesterol.

High Density Lipoproteins (HDLs):

These scavenge cholesterol from the bloodstream, from LDL, and from artery walls and ferry them back to the liver for disposal. Obviously, that’s good for you, which is why HDL cholesterol is often referred to as good cholesterol (as you can see, it actively improves your health).

Triglycerides:

These make up most of the fat that you eat and that travel through your bloodstream. They are the body’s main method for transporting fat to cells (good thing), but an excess can cause health issues.

Types of fat:

Ok, so now you know how fat works and that there are good and bad cholesterols (HDL and LDL respectively).

Unsaturated fat:

There’s two kinds of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. These are called good fats because they can improve blood cholesterol, ease inflammation, stabilise heart rhythms and provide other health benefits. These kinds of fats are liquids at room temperature. Omega-3 is an important type of polyunsaturated fat because the body can’t make it. Most people don’t get enough of these healthy fats and the entire misled “low fat diet” only made things worse as people avoided bad and good fats, replacing them with simple carbs (which are bad). High fat diets with low carbs and healthy fats have been shown to result in weight loss and overall health improvements (such as reducing cardiovascular risks).  The American Heart Foundation recommends 8-10% of your daily calories coming from polyunsaturated fats, though around 15% can do more to lower heart disease risks. The message here is to eat more healthy fats (and obviously less unhealthy ones).

Saturated fat:

Including trans fat (the worst), these are the bad fats you should avoid. They cause excesses of LDLs and triglycerides (their negative effects can be seen above), which lead to a wide range of health issues.

Some sources of good fats:

Oils: Olive, canola , flaxseed

Nuts: Almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, peanuts

Seeds: Flax, sesame, pumpkin, chia

And fish, corn, and soybeans.

 

Conclusion:

Although the Atkins diet and other studies have shown high fat diets do not necessarily lead to worse health conditions, that is a vast oversimplification of the issue. High fat diets are high in both saturated and unsaturated fats, the latter being good for you. When compared to a typical carb-rich American diet, it may be worth the increase in saturated fat to increase unsaturated fat intake. If you look at things more precisely though, it’s because high fat diets replace carbs as fuel, and because you’re getting more unsaturated fats (which you need). It’s not because the fat itself is good for you, it’s because people have really bad diets already, so the comparison is like picking the lesser evil.

As for why carbs are bad for you – well I’ll address that in another post but the crux of it is that carbs release glycogen into your system, and excess glycogen is stored as fat. High carb diets (especially simple carbs with a low glycemic index) tend to release too much glycogen at once, causing most of it to turn into fat. Carbs also digest the fastest out of the three fuel sources and cause blood sugar and insulin levels to spike, then crash very rapidly leading to feelings of weakness, tiredness, hunger and increasing risks of heart disease and diabetes.

 

I’ve seen this topic come up quite often among amateur writers and people tend to give a confuse mix of advice. So should you use a prologue or not? Well, that depends.

The biggest problem here is that the majority of people don’t know how to use a prologue, so the first step for us is to determine a working definition to use. There’s a variety of literal and technical definitions floating around the internet but I stand by my own (as I consider it the best amalgamation of the technical and practical). Before I give my definition though, let’s go through some history (so we can understand the technical side).

 

The term is from the Greek prologos formed by pro, meaning “before,” and logos, meaning “speech.”

 

In ancient Greek tragedy, the prologue was the part of a play that set forth the subject of the drama before the chorus entered.

Why is this so important? A lot of amateur writers are using their prologue to start telling the story. That’s not a prologue, that’s your chapter one. The prologue has to “set forth the subject”. What does that mean? It needs to introduce   the context of the story and it has to be separate to your story (otherwise it’s chapter one).

So what is a prologue? It is a distinct and separate entity that introduces a story by providing information necessary for the reader to understand the text.

By nature, a prologue should be a little bit of an info dump. To “set forth the subject”, you must provide contextual information. Other information acceptable in a prologue would be back story/history and any particular quirks of your world that will clarify things to the reader (if I start writing about angels, the reader would be confused why the floors of this city are puffy white clouds). It should never connect with your chapter one smoothly, if it does then your prologue is your chapter one.

Now, why are prologues bad? Well, first of all, if you’re using it the wrong way you cast doubt on your credibility as a writer. Not a good first impression. Even if you do use it correctly, since prologues are generally info dumps by necessity, your first impression still ends up being somewhat boring. Admittedly, I’m a fan of diving into the heart of things but that doesn’t mean you have to start off with an action scene, it just means you need to open with a hook – your reader has a plethora of other books they could read, give them a reason to read yours.

Finally, I’ve been informed by a few authors and editors that prologues are generally skipped by literary agents. Other readers also tell me that they skip prologues too (though personally I read them). The general consensus of the writing world is that prologues can and should be avoided where possible. If you don’t believe me, Google “prologue bad” and you’ll find lists of published authors, writing sites and editors supporting my statement.

Perhaps the most cogent example I can give is an example from the Greek tragedy “Medea” by Euripides. As prologues were basically invented at this time for these plays, this is a fitting example. The prologue to Medea features one of the nurses talking to herself (technically, to the audience through the fourth wall) and summarising the past events leading up to this very moment (Jason’s quests and how Medea has helped him, only to be met with betrayal). This back story is necessary for the audience to understand Medea’s grief stricken state, and the psychological damage required for her to eventually commit infanticide as revenge. Without this prologue, the play would just be about a psychotic child-killing mother, but with the prologue, we understand the emotional complexity at play, adding layers and depth to the story, climaxing at the point where Medea snaps under the pressure. The fact that the nurse is relaying this information as a soliloquy instantly sets it apart from the rest of the play, so we know it is a distinct, separate entity. This is what a prologue should be – so please, use your prologues correctly.

Purple and Beige Prose:

“Brevity is the soul of wit”

– William Shakespeare.

I’ve made a post before that overlaps with this but in the interests of keeping things tidy, I thought I’d make a more extensive post specifically on this topic.

These are the two extremes of a spectrum of broad stylistic writing styles. That’s not to say your writing style is encompassed entirely as either “purple” or “beige”, but your style will definitely lean towards one of these in some aspects.

Purple prose is the most commonly known one out of the two as it is often used as a derogatory comment on the writing style (whereas not many people write with beige prose, and even if you do, it’s not entirely a bad thing). Here’s a bit of history first; the term “purple prose” originates from a quote by the Roman poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65-8 BC) where he likened writing in purple prose to one sewing purple patches on to one’s clothing. The implication is that purple prose is too flowery and dazzling to fit smoothly into a narration of a story. It’s just overkill, like cutting your bread with a chainsaw. My favourite description of purple prose is “it’s as if the author made babies with a thesaurus”, but the easiest way to demonstrate what purple prose is would be an example. I’m very bad at writing purple prose because my brain rejects it, so I took an example off the internet and spruced it up.

The disembowelled mercenary crumpled lifeless from this leather saddle ornamented with brilliant red rubies, and sank to the clouded sward, sprinkling the parched ochre dust with crimson droplets of his precious escaping life fluid.

If you can’t see the problem yet, I worry for you. Let’s assume this needs explanation, for the sake of analysis. First of all, there are enough words in that sentence to make three sentences. Second of all, there are too many unnecessary adjectives and it just feels like you’re trying too hard (life fluid is hilarious). The true artist makes the difficult look easy – if you’re struggling to depict a man falling off his horse, you’re struggling as a writer. Finally, this sentence takes too long to read, destroying all sense of pace in the story. When you have a scene of someone dying so dramatically, you want as much impact and pace as possible, not a ridiculous essay about his death.

Beige prose:

At the opposite of the spectrum we have beige prose, which is really defined by a minimalistic style of writing – often with sentence fragments. It delivers short sentences with high impact, but over-use can lead to fragmented and disjointed narrative.

Beige prose? Witty when effective. Otherwise, dull. Use carefully.

Consistently writing in purple prose will allow the reader to adjust – typically the reader will just skim over your sentences for the general gist of what’s happening. Trust me, not many people will belabour every individual word. With beige prose, it’s not as easy to adjust. An entire book written in disjointed sentences will be jarring to the reader. I only use short sentences during scenes that require pace, such as action scenes.

The Sue couple are a negative feature in writing used to describe a poorly crafted character (where Mary Sue is the female character and Gary Sue the male – obviously). I just say Sue because it’s easier. Anyway, people are a little divided over the true definition of a Sue. I think the main reason there’s so much disagreement is because people are trying to identify specific traits that are representative of a Sue. It doesn’t work that way because writing isn’t so flat and two-dimensional that you can just say a group of traits is bad. Before I tell you my definition (which I think is – if not better – then at least more encompassing), let’s get some history down.

From: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MarySue

The name “Mary Sue” comes from the 1974 Star Trekfanfic “A Trekkie’s Tale”. Originally written as a parody of the standard Self-Insert Fic of the time (as opposed to any particular traits), the name was quickly adopted by the Star Trek fanfiction community. Its original meaning mostly held that it was an Always FemaleAuthor Avatar, regardless of character role or perceived quality. Often, the characters would get in a relationship with either Kirk or Spock, turn out to have a familial bond with a crew member, be a Half-Human Hybrid masquerading as a human, and die in a graceful, beautiful way to reinforce that the character was Too Good For This Sinful Earth.

From that passage we can identify two things, a Sue is too perfect and is an “author avatar”, which basically means a character through which the author inserts him/herself into the story (most commonly in fanfiction). As a result, Sues have been categorised as having traits such as “too strong, too beautiful, too whatever”, which can collectively be considered as being too perfect. Others argue that Sues are when the author projects themselves into their story (refer to Twilight rant). By projecting themselves, I mean a writer who creates a character representing certain aspects of his/her own personality, and makes good things happen to that character to compensate for a feeling of inadequacy in real life.

These are very subjective measures though, hence the debate over the meaning of a Sue. The problem is that sometimes, your character may have traits that would normally be considered a Sue trait, but is not when placed in context of your story. Here’s how you can prove what I just said – take your most original character and do this test: http://www.springhole.net/writing/marysue.htm. You’ll find that you get a far higher Sue score than you’d think (try and be objective here and admit if you’re overpowering your main character).

Here’s a clearer explanation from me (the Sue test is just for fun – I make a lot more sense than it does). Just because your character has some traits that liken to Sue traits does not make it a Sue – it all depends on your story. For example, if you’re writing about a pickpocket-turned-hitman from the slums of a medieval setting, having him/her being ridiculously good looking, charming and the most sought after sexual target in the story is sort of pushing it. Not only is that ignoring the setting (hygiene was no where near current levels in medieval times), but it’s ignoring the fact that the character is from the slums. Even if you made the setting a modern day society, things get questionable when your character is far too attractive. If you throw in a few too many good traits, you’ll have a Sue. Next example: what if you’re writing about the political side of heaven, where angels debate whether they should interfere with the devil’s work on Earth or let things run its course? Well, it makes sense if your character is good looking because he/she is a freaking angel – they’re all meant to be good looking. 

As for Author Avatars, well, it’s one thing to take out your insecurities on a character and it’s another to base your characters off real human emotions. The distinction can be blurry to a reader, but I think the latter makes for a much stronger and more believable character. They key here is to include both good and bad traits – perfection is your enemy (unless you’re writing about angels)!

So, what is a Sue then? My definition is: A character that is unrealistic within the reality and mechanics of your fictional world. Unrealistic encompasses both perfection and a lack of emotional range. Realistic characters will have strengths and weaknesses. As a writer, you need to make your story engaging, and it isn’t when your character is unbelievable. This definition does not limit your ability to use supernatural abilities, magic, sci-fi technology or anything else “unbelievable” in modern day terms because these things are explainable within the reality and mechanics of your world. If you write a sci-fi, then technology is explainable. If you write about magicians, then magic is explainable. They are not unrealistic in your world. But if you write about cavemen, except your main character has a giant robot mecha suit and uses it to conquer the stone age, then yes, you’ve gone too far.

This is for katlaire who requested I make this post. As promised, this will offend some die-hard fans so if you can’t stomach objective criticism, you’re better off not venturing down this dark alley.

I actually had a hard time coming up with a title for this post because I don’t want it to be just a rant on crappy books that get published. Ranting would imply a subjective opinion. I like to be a coldly logical person with an objective view, so instead of ranting I’m going to mention a few books (all of which were published by a proper publishing house) and analyse why they were successful and whether they deserved to be published. To keep things orderly, I’ll divide this post by book titles, but I’m only going to go in-depth with Twilight. The other books I’ll mention are just for comparison (some of them also suck).

Twilight:

This is, of course, borderline ranting about some of the junk that’s out there, and how could anyone do that without mentioning a crowd favourite? Now it’s Twilight’s turn to shine (or sparkle), something the writing in this book never did.

Honestly, I haven’t read any of the books cover to cover (it’s unbearable even to think about it). I have watched some of the movies though (not my choice) and have done some research into the matter so I don’t end up giving an uninformed analysis. Based on the examples I’ve seen and the common consensus of the writing world and my own opinion, this book is (by writing standards) absolutely atrocious. There is, however, a valid reason for why it became popular, which I will mention later. I’d just like to point out a famous quote that’s relevant here:

“Harry Potter is all about confronting fears, finding inner strength, and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”

Many of you think Stephen King made this quote but he didn’t. This quote has never been sourced back to him and based on a quick Google search, it’s quite obvious the originator of this quote is Robin Browne (who was quoted by Andrew Futral in a tumblr post and later confirmed that he got the quote from Browne). However, despite not coming up with this quote, Stephen King is quite a vocal critic of Twilight. Here’s a quote he actually did say when asked to compare Harry Potter and Twilight (during an interview):

“The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephanie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.”

I disagree slightly about Rowling being “terrific” but I’ll get to that in the Harry Potter section.

Anyway, let’s get to the point shall we? Why is Twilight such garbage? Well, for one it’s plagued with purple prose and a huge lack of pace and excitement. Twilight is something that you lose interest in the moment you gain a shred of maturity. In fact, the series would never have survived if it weren’t for the “hot guys” acting in the movies, because it’s a terrible book/movie series.

Not only is Bella a Mary Sue (more on this later), the plot is focused around the most mundane and ridiculous stuff that only a narcissistic pre-pubescent girl would find interesting. Ohhhh noooo, which of these two mythical hunks is Bella going to pick? Ohhhh noooo, should she become a vampire to be with Edward? Ohhh noooo, Bella has special smelling blood so there’s a sexy feeling of danger whenever she’s around vampires.

Wow, seriously? You have vampires and werewolves in an eternal conflict, living amongst regular humans whilst waging their silent war on each other and the only thing you can focus on is the most prosaic crap about Bella? That’s like Homer writing about two mud-crabs fighting over a rock whilst the Battle of Troy was raging in the background. In fact, this is a particularly apt analogy (that I came up with on the spot) because the Battle of Troy had a love triangle at its very heart too, except look at the difference; Homer’s work has gone down as one of the greatest love stories ever written and has convinced historians and archaeologists to spend their entire lives’ work dedicated to trying to prove the story true.

Now, back to Bella. I mentioned she was a Mary Sue. I can’t be bothered explaining what this is again, so I’m going to put an article on it in the English techniques section later – but I’m sure many people already know the definition. In this case, Bella is a normal girl (albeit with “special smelling blood”) who has the two hottest male characters in the book fighting over her for no apparent reason. Wait, let me recant that. She’s not normal, she’s boring. Not only is she a boring person, she has a horrible, depressive, suicidal, fickle, insecure, narcissistic personality that any real man in the real world would look at and tell both Edward and Jacob “don’t stick your d**k in crazy”. She has absolutely zero redeeming characteristics to make her a likeable person that is in any way deserving of any of the special treatment she is given.

What’s worst though, is that despite being a purple prose (another term I’ll define in English-techniques later on; Google it if you don’t know) infested text, there is a suspicious lack of description regarding Bella – the main character. Want to know why? Because Bella is not a real character – she’s an insertion of Stephanie Meyer’s own personality and is her own pathetic little “John Everyman” for insecure girls. She is basically a gaping white blank in the world of her writing so that any other teenage girl with the same insecurities and personality flaws can just insert themselves into Bella’s place and fantasise about being popular and special for no reason at all. And I can’t stress enough how much this series is focused on this “love triangle” – she even butchered the concept of vampires to “emphasise” how good looking Edward was so that it would be all the more desirable for any girl who inserted herself into Bella’s shoes. So much for Bram Stoker’s Dracula – a hunter of the night, manipulator of the human heart and a dark, gothic villain whose only weakness were the elements. Move over Dracula, we have good-looking, sparkly playboys to represent vampire-kind now. The only aspect of vampires that Meyer got right was the connection between vampires and female sexuality (as Stoker’s Dracula had a strong underlying message of forbidden sexual tension), but I’m almost certain this was purely by mistake and coincidence.

So why did this book become popular? Well, I’ve already mentioned the reason. The book is a tool for girls to insert themselves into this sexual fantasy of self-importance. Since your teenage years are a tough battle to find self-worth, identity and “love” (or what you think is love and will later learn was something stupid), the book really kicked off. In fact, based purely on the target market (insecure young girls), there was even a bit of a snowball effect in which non-readers were pressured into becoming readers so that they would “fit in”. Kind of sad how youths don’t realise that “fitting in” is the opposite of finding your identity, but that’s just something you’ll have to learn over time.

Because of the above reasons, I don’t blame the publishing company for publishing Twilight. They knew it would make money and they were right. I don’t even blame the readers for supporting such a crappy book. It’s natural to want an escape from reality, and when you’re young and immature, your idea of a perfect roleplay is when you get to be Bella. Don’t worry, as you mature your dreams become bigger and more meaningful.

Harry Potter and the Hunger Games:

                        

These two books are common comparisons with Twilight because they became popular during roughly the same period of time. I’m going to dispel a common misconception right off the bat here. Harry Potter is not the greatest series of books ever written. To be more specific, the first three books were mediocre.

I’m crazy right? I told you I’d offend people. Harry Potter has a huge fan-base of zealous supporters just like Twilight does. There’s a problem with books – usually only the mass marketed, viral books get read and people who don’t read regularly just assume that these are the best books out there. That’s way off the mark. There’s a treasure trove of good books that a lot of people have never heard before. Back to Harry Potter though – the overarching plot for the seven books was very creative and original and unlike Twilight, there were actually morals encouraged by the story. The characters were solid and the main cast was characterised very well.

Why then do I not worship the books? Well, as much of a fan as I am, I have to concede that the first three books are sort of mundane, unexciting and most of all, written poorly. The first book in particular is atrocious. The language and writing style that Rowling uses for The Philosopher’s Stone is something I would expect of a high school student who’s doing badly at English. If you don’t believe me go and read the first three pages of The Philosopher’s Stone and then go and read the first three pages of The Deathly Hallows. There’s a HUGE difference. That’s where I respect Rowling, as I read the Harry Potter series, I can feel her skill as a writer growing. The only other aspect I would have liked her to improve on was the world-building. There was a nice contrast between the Muggle world and the Magical world, but it was focused almost entirely on the same setting. It would have been nice to get more into the politics and the different countries and cities.

Harry Potter was popular for the setting and concept. The writing was not originally great (although it did become good), but the idea of a magical society living amongst us and their fear of a powerful evil wizard who could only be destroyed by an unremarkable young boy is a huge underdog story set in a very interesting world. Not only that, the school environment is a popular because it provides a realistic frame of reference for the audience and is a cultural meme that invokes a wide variety of emotions.

Similarly, the Hunger Games was quite average but was popular because the main character featured a strong female role where the majority of fiction books feature a male in the leading role. The story is not entirely original, being a twist on the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (I’ve said this before and someone didn’t believe me so you can go Google this yourself – the author said as much herself during an interview). I have nothing against unique twists on existing concepts (as I write high fantasy, I pretty much live by making my own twist on existing concepts), but the point is the strongest feature of the Hunger Games are the characters, and this is why the series became popular – though the plot isn’t bad either.

Sasha and some other book whose name I’ve forgotten:

I’m going to end with another two books that I found were terrible. The first is Sasha – A Trial of Blood and Steel. I saw this in book stores a long time ago and the title caught my attention, so when it became available at my library I borrowed it. Wow, what a disappointment. Sasha is a huge Mary Sue (in the opposite direction of Bella). She’s not only a princess but a master swordswoman too. She’s beautiful and far too strong. The few chapters I read were just her killing people with absolutely no effort and being widely respected and sought after because she’s basically perfect. Boring. Not only that, the pace was inappropriate (butchered by some purple prose at the wrong times) and the plot so mundane that I can’t remember much about it besides that it wasn’t interesting. Maybe the book got better (and come to think of it I may not have started reading from the beginning) but all I know is that this was one of the few fantasy books that I’ve picked up and haven’t finished. Usually, I’ll stick with it until the end.

The book that I forgot was a historical fiction where this girl went back in time to medieval England (I think) and changed history. She brought her taekwondo skills with her and beat down all these fully armed and trained knights, did the sideways monkey dance with the prince and turned out to be a Goddess. I don’t have to make it any clearer – she was a Mary Sue, and as a result I can’t even remember the title of that book. See what bad writing does? Admittedly, the book was a bit interesting at first (she became a Goddess later on), but it wasn’t very accurate for a historical fiction and the main character was ridiculously overpowered.

Anyway, that’s that. I gave a pretty objective analysis of why some popular books are popular, and why some of them are horrible books so this is slightly more informative that a simple rant. Hopefully nobody is too offended that I called out Harry Potter, I admit that I’m a huge fan and it’s one of the few books that I’ve read more than once – so the very fact that I pointed out its flaws should demonstrate that I’m giving impersonal, objective critiques.

I just got back from watching The Dark Knight Rises and was quite happy with it. For a film close to three hours, it didn’t feel tedious or boring (as much as it should have) and was quite exciting throughout. I don’t intend this post to say anything other than the fact that it was an enjoyable watch, and the fact that it wasn’t as good as The Dark Knight, unfortunately. This is going to categorised under English because I’ll mention a few English related writing and film techniques.

There will be no spoilers, I’ll keep this very general so as not to ruin anything. I will hint at things though so, if that bugs you, watch the movie first.

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I glimpsed an interesting article a few days ago about this movie being a political message. I disagree, and think this is just another case of people reading too deeply into things to try and sound intelligent. While it is true that the creator of any story will inevitably let their personal ideologies seep into their text, I strongly doubt the movie was meant as a political message. However, I do think there was a strong intent to ground the film in reality – a quick look into the story’s plot devices will find several modern day concerns, such as identity theft, corruption, the income gap, returning power to the people (and taking it away from the wealthy), terrorism, government decisions, “structures as shackles” (you’ll understand this after watching the movie), and even the dangers of nuclear-related energy sources (which, despite the recent Japan scare, is stupid to anybody who knows anything about science – candles have killed more people than nuclear reactors, and nuclear power is the greenest power available to us right now; but that’s another rant). This isn’t a bad thing that Nolan’s done. His film was intended to be very gritty and realist in the first place, and as a writer, I know that grounding things in reality is a fast and effective way to build a connection with your audience. For a movie that was trying to say so much, it needed a fast way for us to care. Unfortunately, it missed a bit in that department.

With the introduction of Catwoman, Bane, Ra’s al Ghul’s child, Robin (you’ll find out who he is at the end), and a whole list of other characters with more minor roles, as well as the reinvention of Batman himself, it was very difficult to make a strong connection to the characters. When comparing this to The Dark Knight, we can see a huge contrast. Those of us who are writers will identify two broad categories of stories: character driven and plot driven. A character driven story depends hugely on the audience’s attachment to the characters, whereas a plot driven story relies on the twists and turns of its plot. These are by no means mutually exclusive, but it is almost always possible to identify which of the two a story most strongly identifies with. The Dark Knight was a film that was stolen by the villain (refer to my post on Villains), the Joker, and in Heath Ledger’s absence we can truly see how much of that story was driven by his amazingly played character. By contrast, The Dark Knight Rises is very plot driven. It feels as if we’re watching a series of exciting events unfurl, but there’s no connection to the characters (at least not as strongly as when the Joker was present). Batman’s character was the strongest emotional connections for the audience, with the fall and rise (hence the title) of his mental state, as well as the rise and immortalisation of the symbol of Batman, but compared to the complex love-hate relationship the audience had with the Joker, it feels weak.

The cinematics and mise-en-scenes were done very well, if a bit cheesy (torn US flag wafting in the breeze), and the visual effects really added to the excitement of the story. I’m willing to bet that watching it in the cinemas will be a completely different experience to watching it at home.

The little plot twist at the end feels a bit too sudden for my liking. They chose a good character to play the child, but as somebody who likes throwing in twists, I still think the audience deserves a bit more of a hint lest the twist feel too much like a deus ex machina (a cheap twist thrown in to “spruce things up”). There was no warning for the betrayal, it just happened. Also, the ending [b]did[/b] feel a little too nice (again, deus ex machina when that dude didn’t die – that’s all I can say without ruining it), but considering how things progressed, the chaos that occurred and the rise of Batman as an undying symbol to which future heroes would flock and take up the mantle when needed, it didn’t feel too bad. I guess I didn’t want him to die either.

Anyway, it’s hard to say more without giving away things so I’ll leave it at that. My advice is not to get too excited about the movie. Don’t expect an incredibly feat of awesomeness that would shoot rainbows through the last movie. Treat it like you would going into any other movie you hadn’t watched before and you will thoroughly enjoy it. Unfortunately, The Dark Knight eclipses its sequel, but not by a huge amount.

I’m going to file this under English and Random Facts, because it is a fact that the series was done badly and for reasons closely related to writing, and thus English.

One of the main problems here is the use of deus ex machina, which is technically from Greek tragedy, but as a literary/dramatic technique, I still consider this post relevant to the topic of English.

Ok, let’s get started. A lot of fans will remain close-minded and adamant that their favourite series is as perfect as the rainbow shooting out of a unicorn’s behind but hopefully some of this information will shed light on why the series was particularly bad. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the Avatar series and look forward to the next season. I also hated Shyamalan’s movie, as anyone in their right mind would. However, of all the seasons, LoK was the worst by far.

This was mainly because of poor planning. The Avatar team had this whole “four books for the four elements” theme going. Season 1 was Book One: Water, then came Book Two: Earth, and the last season of The Last Airbender was Book Three: Fire. Then The Last Air Bender ended (by the way, I also had a problem with them calling it Sozen’s Comet when a comet is made of frozen gases, and it doesn’t make sense that ice should power up fire benders). So what now? Three seasons, one element missing. Let’s make a quick fourth one to finish off with. Enter Legend of Korra.

What I’m getting at here is LoK was meant to be a standalone. Unfortunately, they tried to do too much with it and eventually Nickelodeon ordered a second season of LoK which is under production. If anything, that is an admittance that they didn’t accomplish what they set out to achieve with LoK – a nice ending to the four part series – and don’t want to end the franchise with a terrible impression. There’s too much left unexplored so they need another season to explain it all. That’s fine with me, but they should have anticipated it in the first place. Instead, we have a horrible standalone. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. The series was entertaining and if you watched The Last Airbender, chances are you’ll have enough back-story to make sense of LoK. However, LoK, from a writer’s perspective (and any other intellectual) is a poor text for the following reasons.

Introducing the new Avatar. As a baby she’s already busting through walls and bending three elements (can’t do air yet). Flash forward and she’s defeating skilled benders in duels and is known as being incredibly strong. First appearance in Republic City and she trashes three benders from a notorious gang. With no history of Pro-Bending (the sport) she carries her team to the finals. What am I getting at? She’s damn strong from the onset and displays no real character growth. Aang took seasons to learn one element at a time and grow stronger and wiser. Yes, I’m aware The Last Airbender had more time to develop the story – so that’s why I said it was poor planning. Regardless, there is very little character development at all in LoK. The viewer is thrown into a story and watches events unfold. There is no journey, no connection and no feeling of accomplishment because there is no character development. It’s a list of events occurring in a world that isn’t explained with characters that are set in stone. From a writing perspective, that’s bad.

More, Korra has the attention of the only two male leading characters her age. Why? I don’t know. She hasn’t done much to get their attention. Bolin likes her because he likes any female attention (he goes on about how she came to see him as a fan and is characterised as someone who enjoys the company of women). Somewhere during the series, that personality got erased and replaced with the sad little brother that couldn’t compete with his big brother for the girl he loves. Then Mako apparently loved Korra, which I’ll get into later.

What does this mean? Korra is a Sue. A Mary Sue is a character that violates the reality of the story by having everything. A Sue is too ideal to be plausible, and makes for a horrible character because an underdog achieves goals, a perfect character just exists and everything works out for them. There’s a lot more to a Sue but you’ll have to Google that yourself. Maybe I’ll post about them later.

Now, a lot of people have accused Asami of being a Sue, just because she’s the rich, pretty girl. I think this is mainly jealousy over the fact that she’s pretty and has Mako’s attention, and people somehow wanted Mako and Korra to be together. Well bad luck, because Korra is more of a Sue than Asami is. Asami is pretty, yes. But she lost her mother when she was young, she loses her wealth because her father betrayed her trust and turned out to be a psychopath, she’s only strong because she was constantly targeted as a child and needed to learn how to defend herself, and all of that aside, she lives in a world of bending and she’s not a bender. That’s a huge disadvantage. Add to that the fact that her love rival is the freaking Avatar.

How about Korra? Strong from the very moment we are introduced to her, has the only two male main characters in love with her, treated special because of her status as Avatar, can bend multiple elements, and manages to steal another girl’s man, as well as steal a kiss from him when she knew he was in a relationship, but not get in trouble for it. Everything just works out for Korra. She’s the freaking Avatar. She’s special. Her one flaw is that she can’t connect to her spiritual side, which is never a complication in the story, and eventually she does anyway so she can bring in a deus ex machina. So yeah, Korra is the Sue here.

Amon is another problem. There was so much potential in his character. He could have been the “immortal idea” like V (from V for Vendetta). He could have just been the heart-wrenching product of a firebender’s cruelty and a jaded view on the world after the death of his parents at the hands of a bender (as he claimed). Nope. He’s just a liar. Maybe this was a weak attempt to portray a Machiavellian antagonist, like Iago from Othello, but really, he was just a waterbender who lied so that he could seize power. How boring. In fact, his entire motive makes no sense. Apparently the villain of the entire series is explained in a one minute flashback by his brother (he doesn’t even have the grace to explain himself) in which Amon is first the caring, protective brother, then the cruel, animal-torturing brother, then the guy who wants to eliminate all benders because he believes in equality. What the f-? Great, at this point it feels like the entire conflict of the series was a sham and the story is just falling to pieces.

Now that we’ve talked about how shallow the characters are, let’s get on to inconsistency and unnecessary additions to the series. The love triangle was stupid, quite frankly. It was featured in so any episodes as a point of conflict but it was never established properly. When I was watching it, all of a sudden I was like “wait a freaking minute here, Mako likes Korra?”. Why did I have this reaction? Because it was never properly demonstrated that he liked her. Yes, he complimented her for her good performance in pro-bending (which is normal) and there was a scene where he was staring across the water at the air temple where she lived. For like three seconds. Sorry girls, I live in a real world where it takes more than a well-earned compliment and looking in the direction where someone lives to fall in love. Compare that to Mako first meeting Asami.

See? Now that’s love. He spontaneously generates love hearts which float around his head. That’s true love. Maybe he firebended those hearts, I have no freaking clue, but it’s inconsistent as heck with the rest of the story. I had no idea that Avatar was a show that portrayed visual representations of their character’s emotions. So why are there no light bulbs every time someone has an idea? Why no hash and exclamation marks when characters get angry? Because this scene was stupid (man I really want to use the f-word) and inconsistent with the rest of the story. And honestly, he blatantly expresses love at first sight for Asami (four goddamn hearts, count ’em!). At what point did he give a clear sign that he liked Korra? No point at freaking all. Yet somewhere, they decided to turn it into a love triangle that had absolutely nothing to do with the plot and was just a constant reminder of how poorly thought out the series was.

Finally, the deus ex machina. For those unfamiliar with the term, it means “god out of the machine” and was basically a feature in some ancient Greek tragedies (performed on stage) where a “god” would resolve the characters’ problems and basically fix everything. The deus ex machina was often an actor being lowered down on to the stage, symbolising the descent of a god to magically put everything right. Nowadays, it’s basically a feature that doesn’t gel in with the rest of the story and is introduced for the sole purpose of resolving an issue that has caused the story to get stuck. It’s bad because it undermines the integrity of the entire text and removes all feeling of conflict. It’s like, why should I care if someone’s just going to come and fix everything? There’s no suspense at all. There’s no consequences.

Aang is the deus ex machina. Korra loses her bending and everyone freaks out. For once, I feel as if something momentous is occurring in the plot. It’s like, wow, the Avatar has lost her powers! Holy monkeys, what do we do now? There’s some real emotion now – sadness, fear, uncertainty, and destitution. One minute later – wait, never mind, here’s Aang to fix everything. Yes, I get that Korra was sad, and yes, that tear that fell off the cliff was symbolic of her character’s “death” (an Avatar without bending is a dead character – it fails to serve its intended purpose) and possibly reflecting her morbid mindset in which she may have contemplated suicide. This has nothing to do with the fact that these badasses come in and remove all the emotion, suspense and integrity from the text.

There is no purpose to any of the conflict in the series when Korra can just be sad and Aang will come fix everything. That is why a deus ex machina sucks.

Why am I so frustrated? I think the series had so much potential. They could have made something amazing, but instead, it was a rushed, poorly planned, inconsistent, shallow show. Hopefully they take more time with the next season, although thanks to their little deus ex machina, there’s no conflict for a second season. Amon is dead (supposedly – we never see him actually die) and the Avatar has her bending back and the power to restore bending. So what now?

Seriously though, how could would it have been if the second season was Korra journeying with Beifong (and possibly others) to find a way to restore bending? That would have made for a good story.

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