Friday, September 14, 2018

The Last Storyteller—A Short Story That Wanted to Be a Novel


Title: The Last Storyteller
Author: Michelle Dutton (Michelle Knowlden)
Genre: Sweet Romance, Paranormal Romance

Summary

In the small town of Ravenscar, men and women turn into birds, and storytellers keep their people’s secret history alive. Miri was born to be a storyteller, but she abandoned the role and left Ravenscar after her sister’s betrayal and a painful break-up with her boyfriend, Trey. Fourteen years later, Miri returns to Ravenscar for her sister’s funeral. Trey is waiting. As Miri confronts the truth of the past, she struggles to understand who she is and what her future holds.

Review

There is a very dreamy, almost poetic quality to “The Last Story-Teller.” The town of Ravenscar seems like a place forgotten to the world: a little sad, a little run down, but full of its own charm, with characters you can root for. I liked Miri and I found I could relate to her journey. Coming home with a new perspective allows her to understand her past better; at the same time, being home reaffirms who she is. I could also relate to Miri as a storyteller and her struggles as an artist:

“In carefully collecting every word, I lost the sense of weaving only certain threads and in sharing the right story. In collecting every emotion, I lost the skill of only keeping the feelings needed for my listeners. In being so analytical about every detail, I lost the reason and art of telling.”

But the problem I had was that the story felt too contracted, too rushed. I had to re-read the opening chapter a couple times, because I felt like I was missing key information, such as whether shapeshifting was genetic and which bloodlines could shift into which birds and what the key characteristics of each family was. (This plays an important part in the plot.) Different conflicts were teased, but they were never really developed.

For example, Miri and Trey’s relationship. The two still clearly have feelings for each other, but something happened in the past that tore them apart. I wanted to see the drama of this play out, with Miri slowly uncovering the truth, with both Miri and Trey facing their hurt feelings, with both weighing the risk of heartbreak over the potential for true love. But there’s no time for that. They talk about their break-up early on, and the story moves on to the next problem. One problem is solved, then another, then another, until everyone is happy again.

Ultimately, this story isn’t really about Miri and Trey re-kindling their lost love, or about the mysterious death of Miri’s sister, or about the struggles of family, or about small town life, or even about what it’s like to turn into a bird. It’s about Miri and who she is as a storyteller. On that level, it works. But there were so many other themes that could have been explored, that could have made “The Last Storyteller” a fuller, richer, and more satisfying story. It had the potential to be a wonderful novel, but it gets hampered by its short story size.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Five Tropes in Books and Movie that Get Me Every Single Time

I refuse to call them guilty pleasures, because I don’t feel guilty about liking these tropes. Some might view these things, but I don’t care, because I like what I like. These are the top five things that, even when done badly, will still hook me into a book or a movie every single time.


Counting down, from the least to most addictive:

5. Pretty Costumes

I’m a girl. So sue me. I like seeing pretty dresses, especially ones from older time. Be it rich medieval gowns or buttoned-up Victorian trench coats or any random mish-mash in between, I just like to look at them.

One of the first movies I remember seeing in theatres without adults was Ever After, and while I liked the movie just fine, what made me wear out my DVD watching it over and over again was the lush Renaissance-era dresses. Rich colors, flowing fabrics, hints of jewels—what’s not to love?

I’m not a fashionista. I hate going clothes shopping. I haven’t a clue what’s in style, and frankly, I don’t care. So it’s weird that this one gets to me. All I can say is that I like beauty and romance, and I think when you wear these kinds of costumes, you feel beautiful and romantic, like you’re from a different world, a world of new and interesting possibilities.

4. Games

I began to notice that, when I visited my local Barnes and Noble and scanned the titles on the shelf, the one word caught my eye, time again and again, was: “game.” Now it helps that some books I really love have the word “game” in it: Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones. But it’s more than that.
 
To me, games are all about rules and strategy. The rules represent the boundaries, but within those boundaries the player is free to act however they want—pressing the limits, maybe even breaking rules. In a game, two or more rivals butt heads, each matching wits with one another. What’s at stake is usually so much more than pride or money, with people’s lives or even the fate of the world resting on the outcome of the match.

Basically, games are like fights, but rather than being all about violence and physical strength, it’s all about intelligence and creativity. Last week, I established how much I hate stupid characters, but if the writer wants to convince me a character is smart, one of the easiest ways is to have them play a little game.

3. Epics

After watching Avenger: Infinity War for the fourth time, I was trying to figure out why I was so into it. It occurred to me that Infinity War is a true epic: it balances multiple heroes, multiple storylines, multiple settings; it has big battles, grand stakes, and real sacrifice.

I love fantasy and science fiction and all its subgenres, from paranormal romance to dystopias, but the genre I love the most is the epic. I cut my teeth on The Lord of the Rings trilogy—to this date, they’re among my favorite movies. And when I think about what I like about epics, they are ambitious. They are not aiming for light and fluffy and amusing—they are aiming for powerful emotions.

Honestly, I think life is epic. At least, I like to think it is. When I see characters who grapple with good and evil, hope and despair, the lives of friends and the fate of the world, honestly, I feel I can relate. Not because I myself carry such burdens, but I do struggle to do the right thing and I want to make the world a better place and there have been times (like last year) when I have wondered whether all my hard work will mean anything.

So, yeah, epics give me hope that I can matter.

2. “Beauty and the Beast” Love Stories

You know what these “tales as old as time” are: there are two people and one usually starts off as ugly (either outwardly, inwardly, or both), but the process of love transforms the “beast” into a kind and beautiful soul.

These are such beautiful love stories, but I’ve heard so much controversy about them. People seem to think that the moral is either: “lock a girl up until she loves you,” or “see, girls, if you put up with a boy’s abusive behavior long enough, he’ll change” or something like that. But that is not the message. The message is that love has the power to transform people—not that it will transform, but that it can.

Also, please look more closely at these stories. “Beauty” never falls in love with the “beast” because he is mistreating her. She falls for him because he is kind. If he doesn’t start off as kind, she either calls him on it or she treats him with a compassion and human decency he’s not used to receiving. This inspires him to become a better person and to change. That’s when she falls for him.

Call me a hopeless romantic, but for me, this is the only kind of love story worth telling. Love should change people for the better. If love doesn’t change someone—or, heaven forbid—makes them worse—is it really a love? I’m not interested in material wealth or having cute kids. To misquote Elizabeth Bennet, “Only the deepest love will persuade me to read love stories, which is why I so rarely read them.”

1. Bad Guys

You knew this was coming, right? This is the one thing that gets me each and every time, and it sucks because I hate the whole “girls love a bad boy” stereotype, but I love bad guys. They be anything from full on crazy villains to cold and intelligent rivals to angsty anti-heroes with a bad rap, but I swear, 9 times out a 10, you find the bad guy in a book or movie, you’ll find my favorite character.

Gollum. Snape. Seto Kaiba. Saito Hajime. Team Rocket. Iago. Scarecrow. Loki. Kylo Ren.

I am so easy.

The reason I love these characters so much is because in genres that typically play with good and evil, these guys are always a little gray. They are not usually fully evil. They usually have a tragic backstory and exhibit noble qualities; they often dangle the fruits of redemption right in front of my nose. I want to see them become heroes, because I want to believe that anyone can choose to be good. But I’m never entirely sure where they’ll end up. They tend to be freer, more unpredictable, and more playful than the hero.

Honestly, I judge the hero based on how they treat these characters.

I love dissecting these characters, because I want to know if they’re truly evil, and if so, what makes a person evil? Is it possible for an evil person to be redeemed? How? If not, at what point do you actually give up hope? What is evil? What is good? How do you know if you’re really closer to the darkness or the light?

Obviously, this is not something I want to deal with in real life, but in books and movies, I fall for these characters each and every time, no questions asked.

* * *
So, just out of curiosity, do you agree with me or do you find that you can’t stand my tastes? What are your favorite things to see in books, movies, or T.V. shows?

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

My Top 5 Pet Peeves in Books and Movies

What makes you mad?
There are flaws in books and movies, and then there are pet peeves: little things that cause you to erupt like a geyser of boiling acid and spew your hatred for the property in a caustic rage. As a passionate fan with very specific tastes, I have my share of pet peeves, and I will happily rant about them for hours on end to whatever poor soul I can find to listen.

Today I’ve narrowed down my top five pet peeves, the tropes in books and movies that make gnash my teeth and wring my hair in fury. I’ve also put down examples and reasons why I feel so strongly. These are just my personal opinions, and feel free to disagree. But I hope my little rants helps you think about what really bothers you in stories and why.

So without further ado, here are my top five pet peeves, from least to most irritating.

Number 5: Bland Acting

If I were given the choice between an actor giving an over-the-top, scenery chewing, triple ham and cheese, utterly ridiculous performance—or an actor standing with a sleepy stare on his face, I will take the former every time. I can forgive an actor for being terrible, but I cannot forgive them for being boring.
A classic character is completely wasted on blandness.

Brad Pitt epitomizes this for me, not because he can’t act, but he can’t act in the roles I find interesting. I got burned by him three times before I refused to watch him in anything besides Ocean’s 11 type movies, which he seems to handle fine.

First, I caught Meet Joe Black on T.V., where he got to play the literal embodiment of death, and all he did was look bored and depressed. Then I saw Interview with the Vampire, where Tom Cruise turned him into a vampire. While Tom Cruise was having fun and single-handedly keeping the movie afloat, Brad Pitt was listlessly whining about how life as a vampire sucked. Finally, I saw Troy, and though I’d never read The Iliad, I knew enough about the character of Achilles to know that the man was both a massive jerk and a hero. I so desperately wanted to see both characteristics finely balanced out. Needless to say, I was disappointed.

“But I thought he was a good actor,” my mom protested. “He cried really well in that one scene.”

“So what?” I replied. “He’s an actor—he’s supposed to know how to cry. But what did he bring to the character? Achilles is arrogant, egotistical, and acts like a whining baby when he doesn’t get his way. I wanted to see him embody those flaws, yet still show enough charisma to charm us to his side against our will. Instead I got none of it! He wasn’t evil, he wasn’t charming, they tried to make him a good guy, but even that didn’t work. Who cares if he cries when his character is sad? That’s the easy part. The tough part is constructing a character with contradictions and making us believe in him.”

Bland acting bothers me, because there’s no risk to it. Actors stay in their safe comfort zones. They don’t put thought or energy into their roles. They sleepwalk through them. I’m not paying for that. I feel like, if you do nothing else, be interesting! Entertain me! That’s what I’m paying you for.

Number 4: Stupid Characters

It’s not that I hate all stupid characters. Some characters are deliberately stupid for comedic purposes—and that’s okay. I can deal with that. What I hate is characters we’re supposed to root for who make stupid, impulsive choices over and over again, yet get bailed out by the author. This happens with so many fantasy heroes, it’s not even funny.

It is possible to be a hero and have a brain.
The best example I can think of is Naruto, the anime ninja who dreams of being hokage, a legendary rank of ninja. He blunders straight into danger without thinking, over and over, expecting his power or his sheer determination to get him out of the mess—and time and time, he triumphs. It drove me crazy.

Added to this, Naruto was joined by Sakura, who embodied the stupid girl love interest. Her every waking thought was spent on how to capture the affection of the cold, but “cool” guy she had a crush on. Literally, her every thought. Love had made her stupid. She had no personality outside this crush and was completely useless in battle.

Apparently, they got better, but I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.

I just hate this. I hate stupidity, and worse yet, I hate when stupidity is rewarded. I like characters who are smart, thoughtful, and responsible—not ones who are lucky.

Number 3: Nihilism and Despair

Speaking of negative things that have affected my chosen genre, I found I have an aversion to “literary” fantasy. The recent books I’ve read tend to strip the romance out of the magical world. I like my fantasy to be about struggles, growth, and morality, not… well, whatever the opposite is.

Let's treat Narnia like it's our own, personal video game.
Take The Magicians, a “literary” blend of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. Except that, when our motley group of heroes are granted not only magic but enough money to be secure for the rest of the life, they decide that, rather than using their power to better the world, they’ll spend their time being bored, cheating on each other, escaping to an entirely new world where they’re treated as saviors, acting like new world is their exclusive playground, and then being shocked when their actions have consequences. Apparently, things like heroes, loyalty, and friendship are all very passé. It’s all about selfishness and boredom.

I’m also a little nervous around dark fantasy and dystopias, because, while I can handle darkness, I dislike despair. I was enjoying The Hunger Games trilogy up until the third book literally killed the embodiment of goodness and hope, as well as main character’s entire reason for struggling so hard and sacrificing so much. As Katniss went into despair, so did I—and it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

I read books to inspire me, to give me hope. And while I will happily deal with the darkness of the world and the darkness of the soul, in the end, I want to believe that evil can be overcome, that wounds can heal, that change is possible, and that sacrifices will be honored. Take that away, and why am I bothering to read?

Number 2: Endings that Negate the Whole Plot

The host of a movie news channel I watch on YouTube once said that nobody didn’t love The Wizard of Oz, but I disagree, because even as a kid, I hated that movie. The problem was the ending. After going through the whole long journey, I was presented with not one, but two Deus ex Machinas: first, the water bucket of water that melted the witch out of nowhere, and second, the ruby red slippers that could have teleported Dorothy out of Oz anytime she wished. To top it off, the movie was capped with an “it’s all just a dream” ending. The whole movie was meaningless.
 
But it was all just a dream...
When I read a book or watch a movie, I do so with this implicit promise that the plot will lead to a logical and fulfilling conclusion. When the book or movie breaks that promise, I get mad, and I get even madder knowing that I wasted all this time and caring over a premise that was meaningless.

Another example is The Scions of Shanara. In the first book, we are told that evil is coming to the world and that four chosen ones must complete their tasks to rid the world of evil. At the end of four long books, the last person retrieves a sword that promptly sucks all the evil beings into the blade. And I thought, why did I read this? Why bother with any of the side quests at all, if all you needed was the stupid sword? No one had to struggle and sacrifice. It was pointless.

I hate pointless things. If you write an ending that breaks its promise to the readers, then you tear that ending up and start again, because your audience deserves better. They deserve a real ending.

Number 1: Writer’s Block

God, I hate this so, so much. And I’ve read it so often in critique groups, where young writers trying to “write what they know,” write about their inability to write. Worse though, are professionals who put this out. It always seems to go like this:

Watch me stare at the typewriter for two months. It's art.
There is a main character, who is a writer. This writer has already made tons of money off at least one bestseller, and is now under pressure to write another book. But they can’t think of an idea. So, for days, months, or years at a time, they stare at a typewriter, wander around, and/ or drink to excess while trying to come up with a new idea.

This is so boring. Nothing happens. For pages and pages.

I’m a writer. I’ve had to deal with writer’s block. I sit down and write until I come up with an idea. If that doesn’t work, I research or re-read my previous chapters. If that doesn’t work, I switch projects. If that doesn’t work, I deal with whatever psychological issue that’s keeping me from writing. I have no sympathy for people who call themselves writers and don’t do the work.

And the thing that bothers me even more than the boredom, the sameness, or the lack of realism, is the fact that it makes me jealous. These writer characters have already found success and recognition. I have never had that luxury. I have had to struggle and work toward achieving my dream. And I’m still not there. It’s frustrating to see a character who already has everything you so desperately want angst about how hard it is to have it.

So for all these reasons, writer’s block is my number one pet peeve.

* * *

What are your pet peeves and why do they bother you? I asked my friends on Facebook, and this is what they replied:

Christy Madokoro I'll put a book down if I don't like the way a main character speaks. If they sound whiny or extreme Valley girl-ish, I put the book away. And that's probably all a matter of perspective... But the moment I see slang, temper tantrums, woe-is-me, or the word "hella," I have to reevaluate the quality of the book thus far...usually the word hella is an instant toss out...I can't remember any books that might include, but I've definitely turned off movies in the past. When a main character feels sorry for themselves all the time without moving past that, or they are only focused on the unfairness of their life, it's another annoyance that will make me put a book down.

Claire Larry I couldn't stand Twilight's writing style. It didn't flow, and it felt like she was pulling words out of the dictionary that she didn't know how to really properly use. It gave me an actual headache.”

Biz NijdamI hate it when people don't say goodbye when they hang up the phone in movies! Also that no one knows how to use the subjunctive...

Next week, I’m going to write about the opposite: what I’m a complete sucker for in books or movies. If you want me to put your reply in my blog, reply in the comments or on Facebook.

Friday, August 24, 2018

On Sale Today for 99 Cents: Three Floating Coffins

My second novel, Three Floating Coffins, is having a Countdown Sale on Amazon. The deal is, for today only, you can download the Kindle version for 99 cents. Tomorrow, the book goes up to $1.99. Sunday, it goes up to $2.99. And Monday it goes back to its normal price of $3.99. You can purchase it here. (The paperback version is still $15.00)


What happens when you can no longer trust your family? That's what 13-year old Princess Odele wonders when her father seals her and her two older sister in three floating coffins and cast them into the sea. Now, Odele must find new allies and uncover old secrets if she is to save her sisters and her kingdom. Full of magic, mystery, and adventure, Three Floating Coffins fighting to discover the truth and the power within herself.

For more details, see my website:
http://www.rebeccalangstories.com/three-floating-coffins.html

So, why am I having this deal? Well, I've entered Three Floating Coffins in an Amazon contest and the grand prize is $10,000. However, part of the judging is based on how many sales and reviews my book generates. Right now, I don't have a lot of either, so I'm hoping to boost it. At the very least, I'm hoping for more people to find and enjoy my book. While I am incredibly grateful for the love and support from my family and friends, I want to spread my story to people outside my circle. I believe it has a positive message for many people.

You can listen to me read the prologue and the first chapter of Three Floating Coffins in the videos below.

Rebecca Reads the Prologue


Rebecca Reads Chapter 1


If you do buy and read the book, please review it on Amazon. That, again, would really help me out, because the more reviews, the more likely other people, scanning the list, will buy it. It doesn't have to be long. Five minutes is all it takes. If you're unsure how to write a review, I wrote a blog entry about how to review on Amazon here

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

I Read Chapter 1 of Three Floating Coffins

In the video below, I read my first chapter of Three Floating Coffins out loud and give some thoughts on how I wrote it and what I was going for. My book is going on sale this Friday, August 24, 2018, where you can download it on Kindle for 99 cents. It will be $1.99 on Saturday and $2.99 on Sunday.You can buy it here.

Please read and review my books and let me know what you think.


Would you like me to make more videos reading my work? If so, let me know in the comments or email me.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

I Read the Prologue of Three Floating Coffins

In the video below, I read my prologue of Three Floating Coffins out loud and give some thoughts on how I wrote it and what I was going for. My book is going on sale this Friday, August 24, 2018, where you can download it on Kindle for 99 cents. It will be $1.99 on Saturday and $2.99 on Sunday.You can buy it here.

Please read and review my books and let me know what you think.


Would you like me to make more videos reading my work? If so, let me know in the comments or email me.


Monday, August 20, 2018

Review: Three Floating Coffins

This upcoming weekend, I'm launching an Amazon campaign that will sell the Kindle version of Three Floating Coffins at a reduced rate. In honor of that, I'm posting my own review of my story.  Details on the deal below.


Title: Three Floating Coffins
Author: Rebecca Lang
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade Reader

Summary

What happens when you can no longer trust your family?

This is what 13-year old Odele wonders when she and her two older sisters are sealed in coffins and cast into the sea by their father, the King of the Seven Isles. A priest has prophesied that one of the princesses holds magic that will destroy the kingdom. Only Odele knows the truth. The priest is lying.

On the run and unsure of who she can trust, Odele undertakes a journey to find the one thing that may defeat the evil priest: a magical amulet her mother hid years ago somewhere in the Seven Isles. Hunting Odele are the priest’s twin daughters, witches who control dragons made of wind and water. With time running out, Odele must pry open the secrets of the past before she loses her family forever.


Review

Warning! This review is extremely biased, because I wrote this book. However, there's no reason I can't tell you what I liked and didn't like about it, even if my perspective is a little skewed.

I like stories with complicated plots, and this story delivered. Although it's relatively simple compared to my first novel, The Changelings, you're still following two main stories--Odele's quest to save her island from the priest and how her father unearthed magic in the first place. These stories weave together; as Odele learns more about magic, she better understands who the priest is and how she can defeat him. Also woven in are the stories of Odele's sisters and the two "witches" hunting Odele. The elements tie together at the end for what I hope to be a satisfying conclusion.

Personally, my favorite character is Melantha, one of the priest's twin daughters. She can create dragons out of water, which she uses in some creative ways. But although she is a dangerous opponent, she's not evil, and as you learn more and more about her life and backstory, you may find yourself sympathizing with her--I certainly did. There's a really great scene toward the end where you learn her backstory, which was one of my favorites to write.

Another favorite character is Damianos, the street urchin who is desperate to find a way to make his fortune, for reasons that become clear later on. Although at first he tries to turn Odele over to the priest, the two later become friends. Damianos is clever and resourceful, but also vulnerable. That's what I like about him. He and Odele complement each other and bring out their best.

If I had to write about the weak points of this or what I disliked, I'm not all that fond of the father. I find his character to be weak and it makes me feel less involved in his backstory, of which there is a lot. Some of the plot twists were not that all that surprising, and the conclusion was a little open ended.

On the whole, I think this is a fun, enjoyable story. I highly recommend it.

* * *

Now that I've done my review, I'd like to hear what other people have to say. So please, write your own review! I'll be checking on them on Amazon. If you're not sure how to write a review on Amazon, check out this post here.

Starting Friday, August 24, 2018, I will be launching an Amazon Countdown deal. This means the Kindle version of Three Floating Coffins will be selling for 99 cents--but only for this one day. On Saturday, August 25th, 2018, starting at 6:00AM, the price goes up to $1.99. On Sunday, August 26, 2018, the price goes up again to $2.99. By noon on Monday, it reverts back to its price of $3.99. So, if you haven't done so already, Friday is a great time to pick up your Kindle copy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Book Review: Caraval—a Light, Fluffy Read

Title: Caraval
Author: Stephanie Garbar
Genre: YA Fantasy Romance

Summary

After seven years of dreaming of escaping to the magic and splendor of Caraval, Scarlett Dragna’s wish has finally come true—at precisely the wrong time. Her invitation to the exclusive five-day fair arrives right as she is about to be married to a count she’s never met. Marriage is the only way Scarlett can think of to keep herself and her impetuous sister Donatella safe from their father’s wrath. Donatella, however, has other plans. When her sister seizes the opportunity to visit Caraval, Scarlett has no choice but to follow her into a world where illusion and reality intertwine, where dreams can be purchased at the cost of dark secrets, and where to win the ultimate prize, Scarlett may have to pay the ultimate cost.

Review

I bought the book because it had a strong concept that had a lot of potential. Not only does Scarlett get to visit this carnival of magic, but soon her sister is kidnapped and Scarlett is forced to play a game with the Caraval master to get her back. Why is Scarlett singled out? What sort of game will she be forced to play? How will she overcome the obstacles to emerge the winner?

There are answers, but they are not as satisfying as I would have liked.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed wandering the world of Caraval. It reminds me of a time when I went to Lightning in a Bottle—except that instead of sleeping in tents, you get gorgeous hotel rooms with jade keys and trick doors; instead of putting together the odd outfits with fake fox tails and tiny lights, you get a magical dress that changes based on mood; and instead of rows of booths selling cool clothes and art, you get beautiful shops that will sell you magic potions for the cost of a secret or a few days of your life. Caraval is a place you want to wander around in and enjoy all of its beautiful, quirky assets. That works out, since the actual “game” is rather thin.

I’m sort of a sucker for books about games, but by now I know better than to get my hopes up. Caraval’s game is similar to a scavenger hunt, except that the clues are so vague that virtually anything could be an answer. And anything is—the “answers” Scarlett puts down seem like the author’s poor attempt to justify her riddle. Nor do they matter, as the clues are all given at the beginning and one does not lead to the next. Supposedly other players are desperate to win the game, but they don’t really have personalities or do much after the first clue.

Fortunately, the plot of Caraval doesn’t really revolve around the game but rather Scarlett’s character growth. Torn between fear and love, Scarlett learns to take risks and go after what she most desires. To that extent, the story works. And while I don’t mind a good story about a heroine growing up, I really wish we could have that while also enjoying a high-stakes, action-packed, riddle-solving game.

As a heroine, Scarlett is nice enough, but she does not feel particularly unique. She loves her sister, fears her father, hopes for security, desires love, and describes her emotion in terms of color. “The urgent red of burning coals. The eager greens of new grass buds. The frenzied yellows of a flapping bird’s feathers.” I rather like this language, as it adds a sense of romance and emotion and… well, color. But it does strain at times.

The book fits solidly in the YA Fantasy Romance genre. Yes, there is a love interest and he is an appealing mix of roguish and good-hearted. Since Caraval lasts only five days, it’s a whirlwind affair by necessity—which isn’t really my cup of tea. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time for the characters to get to know each other—and it doesn’t help that the love interest is not what he seems. However, Scarlett never puts this romance above her sister, so she gets points for that.

I liked this book. It was a light, fluffy read, a good book to take to the beach. But it wasn’t a book that sat with me afterward, that made me think or feel or want to re-read it. I could probably nitpick it more, but to what end? Like the magical fair itself, it’s best not to look at Caraval too hard, lest all the fun and magic collapse under heavy scrutiny.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Diversity in Film Critics is About Money, Not Art (And That’s Okay.)


I’m writing this in a response to Alissa Wilkinson, who was responding to Justin Chang, who was responding to Brie Larson, which sounds like a game of 6 Degrees of Separation gone horribly wrong, but in case you’re wondering who these people are and what they said, here it is:

Brie Larson, an actress, wants more diverse film critics. She insinuates that critics who aren’t the movie’s target audience won’t completely get what the film is trying to say.

Justin Chang, a film critic, disagrees with her. He says that more diverse critics are nice, but movies aren’t for a particular audience and that everyone can relate to them.

Alissa Wilkinson, another film critic, disagrees with him. She also thinks that we should have more diverse critics, but the reason is because critics create art and art needs diverse voices.

I, a writer of fiction and a complete nobody, will now disagree with everyone, just to be ornery.

I already wrote my opinion of Justin Chang’s article, so now it’s Alissa Wilkinson’s turn. It should be noted that my experience with the film industry begins and ends with reading reviews, so take that into consideration as you read my unexpert analysis of this complex situation.

Reviews Are Not Art

 The crux of Alissa Wilkinson’s article, “The real reason we need more diversity in film criticism,” is whether film reviews are for commerce or art. Spoiler alert: Wilkinson thinks they’re for art. Which is fine. But she goes further and says that film reviews are not just writing about art but are art in and of themselves.

“It’s an art that’s usually funneled through the medium of journalism,” she says, “but criticism is still fundamentally an art form.”

Film reviews are art? As soon as I read it, I wanted to reject that notion. But out of fairness, I read the rest of the article.

Wilkinson continues, “The art a critic makes is a review or an essay, something that is less about ‘supporting’ a movie and more about drawing on an individual’s experience with a film to make an argument about that movie. It includes evaluation of the film, but it also, done well, is a passionate argument for the importance of art itself.”

Now I don’t argue that there is a lot of work in writing a review. Some of the best reviews will make you think about art, life, and what it means to be human. That’s why I love to read them, even when I have no intention of seeing a movie.

But they aren’t art.

Art, fundamentally, is about creating an experience. The artist can be subtle or can practically shout, “This is what my work means!” Either way, it is an experience and the person who views it, interprets it. Art is all about showing.

Reviews are not about creating an experience, they are about commenting on an experience. They are about telling. There’s nothing to interpret—you agree or disagree. They are necessary to carry on the conversation. I’d even go so far as to call the best of them philosophy.

But they are, as Wilkinson herself says, essays.

Go ahead and tell a high school student that they will be doing an art project in class, assign them an essay instead, and see how well that goes over. Essays may be creative. Essays may require the writer’s imagination. Essays may be well-crafted, thoughtful, and personal. But they are not art.

Diverse Voices are Already Out There

Putting aside the quibble on what is or is not art, there is a valid argument for the need for diverse critics. While some actresses insinuate that critics are meant to support films, Wilkinson disagrees.

“Critics try to read a film through the lens of their own unique experience, and that gives life to the work of art. Even when we all sit in the same movie theater, we all watch a different work of art. Adding those perspectives to the chorus can only enrich and expand the movie.”

All right. Different critics will give us different perspectives on movies. This is needed to expand and deepen the conversation. Fair enough.

But who’s to say we don’t already get them?

A lot of people see movies, and, thanks to the Internet, almost anyone can post their opinion on them. Whereas, back in the old days, you might be limited to the film critic writing for your local newspaper, now you have access to all the professional critics, as well as all the amateur ones. That’s why I go to Rotten Tomatoes—to read as many as I can. And, if I find a critic I particularly like, I can keep coming back to him or her.

So, even if white male critics are in the majority, it’s not as if I don’t have other voices I can consider. There are no gatekeepers—anyone’s voice can be heard. If you want, for example, a black female’s perspective on a Wrinkle in Time, go out and find one. It can be done.

Reviews Make the Studios Money

Now I use movie reviews for two purposes.

Sometimes I read them to get a greater insight as to what the movie means, to learn how other people interpreted the movie, to see what people like or dislike, to grasp what ideas are being presented, etc. etc.

Other times, I use them to decide whether or not to see a movie.

And for this, I go to Rotten Tomatoes https://www.rottentomatoes.com/ , note the percentage, read the critics consensus, and glance over the excerpts. If I’m thinking about seeing a movie and the reviews are high, I’ll be more apt to see it. If the reviews are terrible (or even middling), I may give it a pass. This is why movies want good reviews. The better the reviews, the better chance that people like me will go and see it.

And while the people who make movies (like actresses, for example) may appreciate having many voices contributing to the conversation, they don’t care if no one goes out to see the movie in the first place. And whether Alissa Wilkinson likes it or not (and she doesn’t), good reviews sell movies.

But where does diversity come in?

As Alissa Wilkinson points out, “The fact that a movie has content that the critic agrees with or characters that look like the critic doesn’t mean it’s a good movie. And just because a movie is marketed to a particular audience, there’s no guarantee it will be successful in speaking to that audience. Critics who belong to that audience segment are not automatically going to love it.

I agree. I think that if a movie is great, most critics will acknowledge it, irregardless of gender, ethnicity, politics, religion, geography, or sexual orientation. Critics are professionals and they know what makes a good movie. That’s why movies with 90% critic approval rating catch my eye. Likewise, if a film is terrible, critics will also know it, and you will get dismal 20% scores. When a movie is “great” or “terrible” most critics can agree.

It’s when the film is “middling” that it gets more complicated. Because at that point, you have to decide whether you liked it or not. And it is feasible that certain things may appeal to one group over the other. Female critics may like Twlight more than males. Male critics may like Transformers more than females. Neither have a great Rotten Tomatoes score, (49% to 57%), but if you look at the Transformers movie, it has a slightly higher score—very close to being a “fresh”: pick at 60%. Is that because more film critics are males and thus betray a slight preference for the latter?

It’s an iffy claim at best.

But to people who make movies, every dollar made is important and helps decide what kinds of movies get made and who gets to make them. So I can see actresses, who have far fewer roles available to them than actors, wanting more diverse critics, in hopes of getting slightly better reviews, in hopes of making that extra squeeze of money, which will ensure more roles they can star in. And in a time when movies are becoming either record-shattering events or huge money-losing bombs, you bet they care if a movie makes money or not.

Film Critics Need to Eat, Too

It’s hard to feel too much sympathy, I suppose, for big Hollywood moguls and actresses who get paid the equivalent of a house for a few months of work. But film critics are more down-to-earth. They’re regular folks like you and me.

And while Alissa Wilkinson wants to talk about how film critics love art, she does slip some economic realities into her tirade. “Critics generally tolerate Rotten Tomatoes because it can drive traffic toward a review, and in this economy, traffic is how most writers make a living. But the reason people go into film criticism is that they love movies, and they want to talk about them and write and think about them and explore them.”

Let me repeat this fact. Critics make money because of traffic. Whenever you click on their website or watch a YouTube video, ads are launched and money goes into the critic’s pocket. Money they will probably use to buy groceries or make rent.

But the problem is that to get that high traffic, you need to have access to the movie ahead of time. After all, most people want to see the review before the movie comes out—to know whether or not they should see it. And in order to get those special early screenings, you need to get invited by the studios to see those films.

“Part of the reason why critics of color can’t review more movies is because they’re denied accreditation or access to screenings,” Latina critic Monica Castillo wrote following the release of the study. “Invitations to advance screenings don’t usually find their way to underrepresented journalists and critics’ inboxes as easily as they do others.”

In other words, studios deny access of early screenings to women and people of color, and this limits their ability to get traffic and thus make money. This has nothing to do with making your voice heard or contributing to the conversation. You can say your opinion before or after the movie comes out—it doesn’t matter. It does matter whether you can make a living doing what you love.

Why Aren’t We Talking About Money?

I don’t know why it sounds better to say we need diversity so that we can “hear more voices.” It sounds pretty, but it feels empty. Everyone has their own voice, everyone’s voice is unique in some way, and everyone has the right to be heard. And everyone can be heard. If you want to share your perspective, there are multiple ways to share it.

What is more important to me is having the opportunity to make a living doing what you love. Which is, after all, one of the principles of the American dream—the pursuit of happiness. The Internet has opened the doors for all sorts of film critics. Anyone with a blog or a You Tube channel can review films—if they have early access to the film. It seems like all movie studios need to do is send out a few more invitations. So what is the problem?

Most people involved in the arts don’t like to talk about money. It feels dirty and wrong. I get it. I hate talking about money. I don’t write novels because I’ll become rich. Far from it. But at the end of the day, I need money so that I can continue to devote my time and energy to the work I love to do.

What’s wrong with that?

What’s wrong with creating more dream jobs for all kinds of people?

Why can’t we just be open about it?