Saturday, 18 April 2015

Three Writing Tips from Disney's 2015 Cinderella

Despite the success of the awe-inspiring Maleficent, Disney must be sick of revisionist fairytale movies because the 2015 live action Cinderella is anything but. So closely have the film-makers stuck to the story depicted in the 1950 version that the eponymous heroine even chats to and has tea parties with mice. Obviously Cinders has never heard that urban myth about mice having no bladders or indeed found one dead under the toaster or I doubt she would greet them dancing around her bedchamber with such equanimity.

Still, mice aside, Cinderella is visually sumptuous. The vaguely Victorian period costumes are gorgeous and if every now and then you wonder why Cinders sticks to her pale blue party frock for cleaning out the grate or wish there were one or two less butterflies on her ballgown, it's more than made up for by the wicked stepmother's (Cate Blanchett) awesome wardrobe. 

Gratuitous Cate Blanchet dress picture - because she is awesome
Unfortunately, although Cate Blanchett is as awesome as her stylish shirt-waisters and Helena Bonham-Carter turns in a star role as an eccentric high camp fairy godmother, Cinderella, whilst engaging enough, left me feeling a bit bleurgh.  And it wasn't just me. My seven year old who had eaten up Frozen and loved Malificent thought it was no better than average giving it a lowly 5/10/ 

But why?  WHY?  It's a visual feast (the best makeover - and makeunder scenes ever), it has a stellar cast... where did this film fall short? 

And it's one of the best makeover scenes EVER

What I Learned About Storytelling From Watching Cinderella. 

Characterisation: for a character to be interesting it has to be three dimensional. And I'm not talking about the green and red glasses here.  Maleficient worked because there were shades of grey in every character, good or bad. Maleficent was a pure-of-heart, generously loving imp who was scarred by her experiences, became very dark indeed and then struggled her way towards redemption. Her nemesis, the king, was an imaginative, open-minded boy who also happened to be dangerously opportunistic and ruthless. Aurora herself was no mild-mannered sweetheart. Sunny natured, she displayed anger, behaved rashly but ultimately had a great deal of discernment. Every single character went on a journey. It was interesting. Compelling, even.

Magnificent Maleficent

Compare to the characters in the 2015 Cinderella. Cate Blanchett tries with all her considerable talent to add some nuances to her wicked stepmother. There is an implication she is hurt, has become cynical... but ultimately, the relationship between she and Cinders is unsatisfying. When asked by Cinders why she has acted as she had, she says "Because you're young and innocent and good and I'm..." - she doesn't finish the sentence.  It feels out of tune. Surely the tension here is about the amount of emotional investment Cinderella has received? Surely it's about jealousy? 

Meanwhile other characters - let's take the conniving Grand Duke or the irritating stepsisters are mere ciphers - it's as though no one has bothered to think of a backstory for them, which would remotely justify their behaviour. This is no reflection on the actors, who seemed to be doing the best they could with a weak script. Compare this to the wonderful 1976 musical The Slipper and the Rose, where the same set of characters were far more nuanced. 

The Slipper and the Rose, 1976

Conflict: Sticking with The Slipper and the Rose, one way in which the Grand Duke character was nuanced was that he was genuinely concerned for the kingdom. There was a threat on the borders that must be addressed. This gave the viewer some sympathy for him. Social hierarchy is also a significant theme in The Slipper and the Rose: the Prince's relationship with Cinderella challenges the very fabric of society (as played out in the charming John/Anne subplot). This helps to raise the stakes for the Prince and Cinderella - it's going to be damn hard for them to be together.

In the 2015 Cinderella there simply is no external conflict. Adding an extra few divisions of soldiers to the country's army ranks appears to be a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. It's easily dismissed in the Prince's mind.  Neither Cinderella nor the Prince have anything to lose by being together. Once they actually find each other, there are no real hurdles to overcome. In fact, if Cinders had wriggled out of the window, climbed down the ivy and hot-footed it to the palace the whole thing could have been sewn up without any need to launch a great big girl-hunt. Cinders just doesn't seem too fussed about doing so, being happy enough to hang about in the attic chatting to the mice.

A great romance plot takes both romantic protagonists on a journey and stacks the odds against them being together. They have to work hard to get to their happy ending and they change along the way. It's like a quest story, but one that involves two people questing towards the goal from different directions. You win the prize by overcoming obstacles. That's the name of the game.

Electric eccentricity from HBC 
Make every scene count: There's a scene in Cinderella where the Prince is having his portrait painted. The artist, Master Phineus, played by Rob Brydon, is a comic character who mouths off all throughout his scene. Why? For comic effect? Because... why? His lines don't do anything for the story. His could have been used to show that the Prince didn't take himself too seriously and that this was in conflict with the expectations of him. He could have been used to impart important information. In fact, his inclusion just felt pointless, distracting and at odds with the overall atmosphere of the film. Compare to the Fairy Godmother scene with the brilliant Helena Bonham-Carter which is genuinely funny and is essential to the plot. Take a tip from Chekhov: "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

So what can a romance author learn from Cinderella?

You can have gorgeous description (the book equivalent of sumptuous costumes and scenery) and you can have action - and Cinderella does - but without conflict, you don't have that satisfying feeling of resolution. Without strong, three dimensional characterisation it's hard to care that much about what happens to the people in the story. And without good editing, your reader will be distracted. 

Don't make your villains too bad or your protagonists too good - both are dull. Don't skimp on the conflict, internal or external, because without it your story won't keep the reader interested. Make the odds high. Show what they have to lose. 

When I asked my daughter why she gave Cinderella such a mediocre rating, she said: "It's like they should have thought about it more before they made it." 

I couldn't have put it better myself. 

PS she also said: "And she had too many butterflies on her dress." Another truth. Because like, sometimes, less is more. 

A plague of butterflies on our nature loving heroine

Monday, 26 January 2015

Storytelling for Kids - A Guide to Plot

My daughter is a drama queen. Literally.

She's been part of  a drama group since she was four years old, acing parts like Grumpy in Snow White, Mrs Twit in The Twits and the eponymous Rafunzel. Her drama teacher joked that she'd be directing them herself soon. As it turns out, she's not far wrong. At seven, writing plays is her latest thing.

When I say writing plays, it mostly comprises writing out lists of "caricters" (sic), drawing colourful and elaborate costumes and recruiting her mates into a secret drama society and assigning them parts. Then she asks me to type it all out.

But she is thinking about what happens too. So I told her, start with a story. And to help her, I wrote out some questions which I have found useful myself. These questions give her the bones of her plot.

So just in case your child genius is a budding Shakespeare, here they are. Plunder as you will:

Your hero/heroine(s) is/are...
Winter, Autumn, Spring and Summer are four sisters who each possesses an amazing – and potentially deadly power.

One day something happens... what?
One day Summer is kidnapped by evil goddess Discord, who hates their parents and wants to destroy their kingdom. She demands that their parents sacrifice themselves to get her back.

What do they have to do because of the thing that happens – and why do they have to do it?
Spring, Autumn and Winter need to use their powers to get their sister back before their parents sacrifice themselves. They have until sundown to do it.

What – or who – is stopping them?
They can't agree on the best way to rescue her. And Discord is doing her best to make them disagree and turn on each other so that they fail.

What do they need to do to overcome he/she/it?
They need to learn to appreciate each others' strengths and respect each others' opinions in order to work together.

How do they nearly fail?
Winter and Spring fall out over whose plan will work the best and nearly turn on each other.

How do they win out in the end?

Autumn realises this was Discord's plan all along. The sisters unite and, working together, blast Discord, rescuing Summer. 

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Leaving 2014, Starting 2015: Resolutions

New year, new start.

This year I had a real new start feeling. It's not that I'm desperate to leave 2014 behind. For many amongst my friends and family it's been an exceptionally tough year that has included loved ones grappling with cancer, fertility issues, career problems and emotional ups and downs. My year was okay and for that I'm enormously grateful.

If 2014 has taught me anything it's be grateful. Be appreciative of what you have, when you have it. Don't take anything for granted, because life can change in the blink of an eye.

But I always knew that, I think.

So, resolutions.

In previous years To Chill has been been a major resolution. Also Balance in All Things. I actually think I've made some progress on that. 2014 was the year of mostly getting a reasonable amount of sleep, if cat-related insomnia, the lure of an excellent book and the vagaries of having a child who won't stay in her own bed are taken out of the equation.

I also said I'd write every day.

I haven't written every day. I haven't even written every week. But I have done some writing.

In April I revised my historical romance, Boundless. I'm still revising it, by the way. Changing the plot and all sorts of other things that would no doubt be best left alone.

In July I wrote 60,000 words of a novel, Lord of Shadows: my very own NaNoWriMo. Or rather MyNoWriMo, seeing as it was just me. I'm not saying they were good words and the last third of the novel remains unwritten, but it's waiting for me. And it was a change in genre, which felt good.

'cos it's funny

In December, I wrote a short story for my nephew in hospital. A superhero parody. So another genre shift and this time I printed it.

I also edited my Granny's short stories over Christmas, into a print edition. That felt good too, like restoring a beautiful heirloom for future generations to go. If I ever got to pick my fantasy dinner party, my Granny would be round the table. I never met her and there's so much I would like to ask her. I think we would have liked each other.

I've read lots of good books too, fantasy, romance and other genres. It's the love that never dies, is reading.

So what does 2015 bring? 

It brings... Exercise Goals. No really. I started this blog five years ago. I was just over thirty then and my highly sedentary lifestyle hadn't yet begun to show. It has now and I have *gulp* come to recognise that if I want to exercise my brain, I need to exercise my body.

So in May, I'm doing a [walking] marathon. Training started yesterday. I'm bloody scared.

It also brings... Balance in All things goals. See above. No point in writing all day if your body turns into a wasteland. Experiencing cancer within my family has shown me the value and fragility of physical and mental health. So love, time with friends and family, economy, exercise, creativity and work all need to be woven into a strongly balanced tapestry. I dont' think this is something that is ever gotten totally right but I'm going to try.

2015 brings Classics Goals - a new one this! But the older I get the more passionately I love classics. I went to see the Electra in 2014, at the Old Vic in London, and the Penelopiad during the Edinburgh Festival. I was devasted to miss the Medea (my personal fave). I built a Greek Temple out of toilet rolls. I read myths to my daughter. I loved every minute of it.

Sometimes the choices you make my chance and without much consideration are the right ones. I chose classics at A-level on the whim and it has proved to be the enduring intellectual love affair of my life, one that I've been able to share with my daughter to my very great joy.

So this year, I'm going to try to learn a bit of Latin and Greek again. And maybe write some more classics inspired stories. I'm going to visit Vindolanda and plan a trip to Greece for my 40th birthday. That gives me 3 years to save up :-)

And lastly, Writing Goals. Of course.

Keep it simple.

I'm going to complete my revision of Boundless and Do Something With It. I'm going to try to master a short story or a novella. And I'm going to try to complete Lord of Shadows. 

And obviously read, read, read.

What about you?

HAPPY 2015! 

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Feminist Romance Novels - a discovery of riches

Scotland loves new year - or Hogmanay as it's called here. It loves it so much it awards not one, but two bank holidays. That's one more than Christmas and it means that people can really party.  There are tons of traditions associated with Hogmanay. Cleaning out your house. First footing. Shortbread. Coal. Auld Lang Syne. Brisk walks on New Year's Day.

Confession: I am a terrible Hogmanay-celebrator. It's the memories of queues, I think. Queuing is known to be a great British tradition, but it's not one I embrace. Not when you're wearing heels. Not when it's sleeting. Not when you're waiting three hours for a taxi and paying twice the fare you normally would.  So this year we had a gathering at our house and there were no queues at all. 

I welcomed the New Year in the neighbour's front garden and New Year's Day well, there was no walk. New Year's Day was all about new authors - new to me that is. 

I welcomed the dawn of 2015 in fantastic literary company with two new-to-me authors, Sherry Thomas and Courtney Milan. And I came across them, in a 2014-ish sort of way, via Pinterest because of pin description which read: "9 Surprisingly Feminist Romances."

Well, I'm a feminist. And I love romance. The nine books cited included Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne, which has one of my favourite ever spy-heroes, and Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer, which has one of my favourite ever Heyer heroines. Also an Elizabeth Hoyt, which is frankly, always good. 

Immediately, I was sold. It was the work of a moment to check out the others on the list, starting with Sherry Thomas and Courtney Milan. And that's where I stopped, because I enjoyed them so much, I just wanted to read more. 

In the space of three days, assisted by some cat-related insomnia and a fair amount of laziness, I speed read my way through a great clutch of novels by both authors. They're great. 

Courtney Milan's heroines are outstanding - wonderful, empowered geeks enhanced by interesting, enlightened male counterparts. No two the same, no storyline repeated. Try the Brothers Sinister series, you won't regret it. I started with The Suffragette Scandal, whose ambitious and fiery heroine wants to eat the world alive, but that's actually towards the end of the series. The earlier books are just as good. Each one is outstanding, including the novellas. 

Sherry Thomas' delightful historical romances (she writes YA too) beautifully balance sensuality with sharp wit and warm humour. His At Night is funny and clever, with an edge, like Baroness Orczy having afternoon tea with Loretta Chase. Not Quite a Husband turns the loving-wife-wins-love-of-irascible-and-emotionally-remote-husband trope on its head with heart-warming dexterity; Delicious has the sensuality of Chocolat and the Cinderella magic of Eva Ibbotson's A Countess Below Stairs 

So there's my 2015 gift to you: a clutch of recommendations. Greater love hath no blogger. Happy reading. 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Building a Greek Temple from Toilet Roll Tubes

It's Sunday and Sunday is No-TV-Or-Computer-Day. We introduced this concept a few weeks ago to stop us burying our heads in tablets/smart phones/other things with bright screens that place us on tiny individual islands not speaking with each other.

The result is time outdoors or time hanging out crafting and reading or playing games. It's brilliant. I feel like I'm a kid again. My daughter gets to do the kid stuff I did. Make sand castles. Explore the library. Go wild with paint and sticky back plastic. Better still, I get to do that with her.

Today, however, was our Piece de Resistance: a Greek Temple built out of toilet roll tubes.

This is a project I've been wanting to do for months, inspired by the too-brilliant-for-words Hands on History book on the Ancient Greeks, which I picked up for a song at that fabulous den of Craftiness and Books, the Works.

I say "inspired" because it transpires that in craft, as in recipes, I can never quite bring myself to follow the step by step instructions to the letter. I go free style. And this is the result:

Building a Greek Temple out of Toilet Roll Tubes

Monday, 23 June 2014

Interview! Emmie Mears and The Masked Songbird

Gentle Readers,

Today brings an EXCLUSIVE interview with debut Harlequin author, the fantabulous Emmie Mears. Her brand new urban fantasy THE MASKED SONGBIRD is out on 1 July.

As an inhabitant of Scotland, I was particularly fascinated to find out that THE MASKED SONGBIRD is set on the eve of the Scottish Independence Referendum - something that is on everyone's minds in Scotland right now!

So, without further ado - let's get down to and find out more about the novel!

An Interview with Emmie Mears:

The Masked Songbird is set on the eve of the Scottish Referendum on Independence: what captured your imagination about the vote?

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Do you defend your right to imagine?

I have always given myself permission to imagine. I didn't realise that not everyone does, not until I was in my early twenties walking through the woods with a boy. 

Me: "I love woods, they remind me of Narnia - I always think that the trees might be dryads."
Him: "That's bullshit." 

I paraphrase, but it was something along those lines. He wasn't being mean. Indeed, we're still friends now. He was just impatient with what he perceived to be fanciful nonsense. He didn't understand the point in thinking about that stuff. I didn't understand why he wouldn't want to. 

Richard Johnson's Imagination series

To me, seeing a story behind every stick and stone, behind every face and sound, makes the world endlessly fascinating and engaging. I like finding patterns, links and themes. It makes life a game that I want to play. In Myers Briggs personality tests I come out as a "N". 

"Paying the most attention to impressions or the meaning and patterns of the information I get. I would rather learn by thinking a problem through than by hands-on experience. I’m interested in new things and what might be possible, so that I think more about the future than the past. I like to work with symbols or abstract theories, even if I don’t know how I will use them. I remember events more as an impression of what it was like than as actual facts or details of what happened."

Yep, that's me. I find it fascinating to watch my 6 year old daughter and her friends navigating the same sort of clashes.  At 6 they haven't yet learned the art of tolerance and compromise, or that it's okay for other people to think and believe different things from you.

"Muuuuumnmmm, she says that Fluffy [stuffed animal] isn't a real dog. She IS real. She IS!" 

"Mum, she fell out with me today because I said she was 6 and she said she WASN'T 6 because in fairyland she is 16 but Mum, I didn't know what age she was in fairyland so it's not fair that she fell out with me and she is 6 anyway." 

These are situations to which I, as a parent, am required to respond. A friend has a daughter who loves fairies. In fact she says she is a fairy. "Do you think it's okay for her to be so into fairies," she mused. "Should I put a stop to it?"

My answer: a resounding NO.

I was brought up by religious parents where faith and imagination were critical to their belief system. I had a Dad who told me fairytales which blended with my everyday experience. I had a plastic Virgin Mary straight from Lourdes with a screw off blue crown to pour out Holy Water. I also made shoes out of tin foil and left them on the window sill for fairies. Each year my Dad went to great trouble to show that Father Christmas had been. Presents would be hidden on the roof, behind the chimney and carrots would be chewed. Magic was entirely permissible.

My childhood was richer as consequence and so is my adulthood. I have never left those childish things behind me. I still look at trees and think of dryads.

This inclination to see a world within a world has been crucial to my working life. It has given me scope to create a vision for the programmes in which I work. It has helped me to see where dots can be joined to create something new, unique and exciting. It has helped me work out how to fire the imagination of others. 

So next time your mind wanders.... let it. 

If your children want to be fairies or goblems... let them. 

In a world beset by grand challenges imagination is our greatest weapon and our greatest defence. Indulge it, feed it and help it to become strong and powerful.  

And never, ever forget to look inside the wardrobe.