Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest

So there’s a contest going on hosted by Amazon to find new voices in fiction.

There are two categories: General Fiction and YA Fiction. Luckily, I happen to write in the latter category, so I’ve decided to enter.

The title of my novel. Image stolen from the band of the same name's website.

Unfortunately, after revisiting the novel I wanted to use, I realize it kind of sucks. Oh, I used to think it was all that. In fact, it was the greatest thing I’d ever written and couldn’t possibly ever write anything better. What an idiot.

I had shopped it around, got several rejections, and a handwritten note from one of the editors that said they really liked it but couldn’t use it at the moment. I was even allowed to send the first 100 pages to a literary agent based on my pitch. She told me she didn’t quite connect with the main character as strongly as she needed to.

Now after several years away from it, I can totally understand why. My protagonist is so guarded even with me. There’s nothing warm or endearing about her. Sure, she’s all tough and jaded, the kind of girl you want in a fight, but there’s nothing vulnerable about her.

I had a very sharp conversation with her yesterday (and yes, I was talking out loud). I told her if there’s one person she has to be honest with, it’s me. I can’t tell her story, and it’s a good story, if she doesn’t let me in. I don’t even know who she was before the story started. Oh, of course I know what happened to her (we call that backstory), but I don’t know what she was like. What were her hopes and dreams, who were her friends, how did she act? Believe me, I filled out all the personality/characterization sheets, but I was going on what she was telling me, and it wasn’t the whole truth. I’m not even sure if any of it was the truth or just what I was coming up with because she was not very forthcoming on her own. The main thing I’ve learned is that your protagonist cannot hide from you or the reader. Sure she can hide her true self from the other characters until it’s necessary, but in order to make a connection, she’s got to be real.

Good news: I might have gotten a glimpse of her last night, and I’ll be hounding her the rest of the day on giving me more. Bad news: from what she’s showing me, my whole story is going to change. Well, not the plot things, but definitely how she acts, how she reacts, the relationships she forms with people. I don’t think I can revise the first 3000-5000 words by the time submissions open, which consequently is at midnight. And though I’m a little more than bummed if I don’t get a chance to enter, at least I’ve been made aware of this fatal mistake. (Thanks, K, for that!) Who knows? I might just get accepted on another round of submissions.


Insidious: From a Writer’s Perspective

I’d heard from several reliable unrelated sources that Insidious was the scariest movie they’d ever seen, so I had to watch it. At midnight. In the dark.

Umm, not so much. Chock one up for creepy, discordant music, though, and some disturbing images of 1950s doll-like psychotic mannequins. But I’ve seen the fire face guy before in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, the old lady in my head while reading a book, and the little boy in the cap in my dance troupe. None of them are that scary. (Well, except for the old lady in my head.)

A few problems I had with the overall story:

1) The protagonist does not actually know he’s the main character until about two-thirds into the story. The entire first act and much of the second is based on Renai and her actions. She has a relationship with her children (well, ok, I don’t believe there was a need for Foster at all–the screenwriter could have easily had Josh “see” Dalton walking around in his astral body, which would have foreshadowed his whole childhood as an astral-projector), she sees the demons/ghosts/rip-off Buffy bad guys, she makes the family move houses, she contacts the priest, the mother-in-law, and Elise. She wants to be believed; she knows her son’s coma isn’t normal (if it’s possible) and she wants him out of it. (I think there could have been a nice scene where she actually talks to Dalton while he’s in it to reinforce her worry and her fears.)

2) Not one insinuation is made that Josh was having an affair. He was grading middle-school papers until 11:30 at night at school because they needed extra money for Dalton’s medical bills. Even I don’t believe it and it was the truth. First, teachers, correct me if I’m wrong, do not get paid overtime, and they aren’t forced to stay at school to grade papers when they can take them home and do it. Secondly, there is a completely missed opportunity to see Josh in his astral projection mode when he falls asleep at his desk. Yes, we see a black and white image of Dalton in his bed in a coma, but astral projection connotes movement–you travel to different realms. You do not just stand there. How is the audience supposed to know he wasn’t just daydreaming? (At the very least, we should have seen Josh in the scene at his son’s bedside.)

3) If I need to bring a character in (the mother-in-law) halfway through the story to explain something, then I haven’t done my job at creating my main characters or their backstory well. By the end of the first act, we should know who the main character is, what his external goal and internal need are, and whether or not he’s going to take up the challenge of achieving them. Unfortunately, Josh doesn’t even know what his goal is until Elise tells him he has to go into astral projection mode to find Dalton and bring him back. (This didn’t happen until I was completely bored and ready for the movie to be over.)

4) Nothing is explained. I’m so sick of watching scary movies that rely on flashing freaky images across the screen to divert our attention away from the real purpose of watching a movie–to be entertained with a story. I still want to know why the old lady chose to attach herself to Josh, why his mother could see her in the photographs (how could Renai see them for that matter?), what the point was of the demon/doll/mannequin blasting away the 1950s family, and who the antagonist was. If it was supposed to be fire face guy, I need to know a little more about him (like who he was before he died) besides that he sits in a pseudo toyshop/alchemist’s lab and listens to Tiny Tim‘s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” (Incidently, antagonists have their own external goals and internal needs that motivate them just as protagonists do. The audience should be privy to this information as well–even better if you can make us sympathetic to the bad guy at the same time we want to see him defeated.)

I also need to know that Dalton can astral project and that he isn’t just scared to sleep in his room at night. Not to mention why they needed to move to the first house at all. Renai said she didn’t want things to be the same, she wanted to start over–start over from what? Was Josh having an affair? Did she just get released from a mental hospital? I need to know what happened before the story starts, so I can understand why I am coming in at this moment in time.

5) On the other hand, I do not need to know that Renai is an aspiring songwriter. While it’s a nice characteristic, it isn’t intrinsic to the storyline. She’s not even the main character. Isn’t there some detail the writer could have given Josh to actually make us sympathetic to him? As it is, he has no relationship with his wife or children and he doesn’t even take an active role in the plot until Elise tells him to.

6) And lastly, these malevolent beings supposedly want to inflict pain on the living, but I don’t see that really happening in the movie. There is that one dude who looks like The Crow/Joker, and he did try to attack Renai. But other than that, what is his purpose? I think this bit of action would have been better left to fire face guy. Oh, but wait, we’re not sure if he’s the antagonist or not.

There are some major elements of storytelling missing in Insidious, and it isn’t even scary enough to make up for it. Had the screenwriter just made Renai go in to get her son and had Josh lead her and Dalton out, some of the problems with this movie would have disappeared.  Renai would have achieved her external goal of rescuing her son and her internal need for being believed.

Like I said, “Some of the problems.”