Thursday, December 27, 2012

Beyond the Barricade: Les Miserables (2012)

I'm a massive theatre geek. I even flirted with the idea of making my living in the performing arts at one time (instead I've decided to go the much safer route of writing... ha). Les Mis was one of my favorite musical scores growing up and I was excited to see how it would be brought to the main screen.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it's based off Victor Hugo's novel about the later years of the French Revolution. It follows the lives of impoverished people of France looking for a better life, for redemption. The main character is Jean Valjean, a convict who spent 19 years at hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister's starving child. After he's released, an act of kindness makes him decide to turn his life around and he breaks his parole, changes his name, and starts again. Javert, a police inspector with a black and white view of morality makes it his mission to recapture Valjean.
The production had a very impressive cast on the whole. Stage and screen veteran, Hugh Jackman plays a sympathetic Valjean. He presents the aging of Valjean in a realistic manner. The sound of his voice seems to shift as time passes, especially in the finale of the film, you hear the sound of weakened, elderly man. Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit are very strong as the young revolutionaries, Marius and Enjolras. Redmayne is not known for his singing, but has a clear voice deeply laden with emotion. The song "Heart Full of Love," (which isn't one of my favorite of the show due to its slightly cliche' lyrics) feels strangely genuine, giddy, and comical in Redmayne's hands. Tveit's theatre experience comes across in his commanding performance as leader of the students. I'm dissapointed he wasn't featured more on the posters and other press for the film.
The female cast was generally strong as well. Anne Hathaway was surprisingly adept at marrying emotion with vocal quality. Samantha Barks, familiar to Les Mis fans from her performance in the 25th Anniversary concert reprises her role as Eponine to good effect.
The only person who seemed miscast was Russell Crowe as Javert. Not a natural singer, he handles all his solo work decently, but at times it seems like he's putting to much focus on his singing. He has trouble balancing the acting in a scene while he's singing. Not that he's particularly bad, but when so much of the rest of the cast shines at that balance, it's easier to notice his deficit.
Overall, the film was very strong and emotionally resonant. There were many sniffles among the audience as early as a half an hour into the film. The score is extremely powerful. That's the quality that has brought theatre going audience to their feet for the past twenty five year and it continues to be effective in film. As the press for the film has made clear, the actors sang on set instead of pre-recording their music. It gives a more organic feel and allows for the actors to experiment and really perform the songs as they would in a theatrical setting.
The film medium allows them to explore the scale of the story more and even find some gritty moments about the poverty people live in. The death scenes (of course there are are death scenes) are handled well. One particular death of one of the barricade boys is done especially well, as he is draped out of a window like a flag.
Fans of the musical and of historical dramas will find many things to enjoy about the newest adaptation of Hugo's classic 19th novel.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Brevity is the Soul of Wit: In Defense of Slim Novels

I see more agonizing over how long a novel "should be" than I feel is needed. My mystery novel (shiny new draft recently completed) clocks in at about 53k words. Short, but still above the prescribed 50k it must be to be considered a novel.
I suppose I find it frustrating when I see blog posts telling me that suspense and mystery novels should range 65k to 80k. Why? Not all agents and publishers adhere to these guidelines strictly, but it's still worrying to think that others may be discouraged by my manuscript length. Many classic mysteries like And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie and Hound of the Baskervilles wouldn't make that 65k requirement.
I think much depends on the author's style. Do they luxuriate over scenery or stay with a starker viewpoint? I personally write dialogue heavy pieces, allowing character and plot to explain itself in interactions between the characters. I simply prefer that way of conveying information to the audience (probably leftover from all the time I spent doing theatre and working with scripts).
I think many of us can agree that quantity doesn't automatically equal quality in a first novel. In creative writing classes, exercises where you shave away all your adjectives and exposition often prove liberating. I've been in my share of creative writing workshops where a little trimming did wonders. Young writers especially have a tendency to "clear their throats" at the beginning of pieces. Their first paragraph, stanza, or chapter can sometimes be eliminated entirely. I suppose I'm trying to write as tightly as possible. I don't want to give myself room to clear my throat.
That's not to say that many breathtaking novels haven't soared over 100k words. Some stories simply call for longer books if they have complex plots spanning over long periods of time or the author has to build an entirely new world on the page (in the case of fantasy).
Through subsequent edits, I may bulk out some characters or subplots of my novel and add a few thousand words. I just don't see the point in adding bulk for the sake of it.
Never write just for the sake of meeting a word count. Unless you're just having fun with NaNoWriMo. Or meeting a requirement for one of those creative writing classes. Even then, I feel like you should be working towards something with those words.
I'm sure that as readers, we've been equally touched by a slim novel (Ahem-- The Great Gatsby) as we have by a thicker text at some point in our lives. I suppose I'm trying to convince myself that ultimately it won't matter so much. That no one will try to pigeonhole me to YA fiction if I can't break 60k. That savvy literary agents know it doesn't really matter.
It's just hard writing between the standards. I wrote a novella last winter that I'm really proud of. It was my grand experiment trying to write layers of plot and character to follow a musical pattern (with refrains, variations, and harmonies). I love that piece, but I'm not sure what to do with it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Shiny New Drafts and Breathing Space

The semester is officially 100% finished. I've just sent off the shiny new draft of my mystery novel to my favorite reader: my English professor. She read my previous draft and gave me some very enthusiastic and thoughtful feedback.
So now I'm working on my Oxford story as well as the historical fiction piece I started in the spring. Aha, yes those of you who are keeping track would be correct, the count is now up to three major projects. That's right, I've been secretly working on a piece set at the turn of the century. Didn't know about that, did you? Enigmatic me. I suppose the piece is both historical fiction and crime fiction, but not in the usual way.
However, for the next few days, I've decided to take a much needed breather. I have serious end of semester fatigue. I haven't even been able to do any lengthy reading. Light reading, long walks, hot tea, and a Scrabble evening with my friend: that's what I need. And this week, that is what I shall endeavor to make time for. Then back to the manuscripts. Also back to my ever-growing reading list.
In my endeavor to write the kind of books I like to read, I've been trying to read as much literature that falls within my genres as possible. I've been working my way through piles of contemporary and classic crime and suspense literature. Then I began amassing Oxford based literature-- a more herculean task than I originally suspected. Of course this is also nerve wracking when seeing exquisite examples of writing and noting how crowded your genre is. Though, to be honest, most genres are crowded these days.
So, here's where I try to make some brain space.
Enjoy some music by The National.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Let's Get Thematic

So, as my story is coalescing more fully in my mind, I am starting to think ahead about what the story will really be about. Sometimes I'm very focused on thenplotmand the characters and it's not until I bang out the first draft that I start to analyze what the meaning is or could be. Sometimes I start toying with the deeper meanings earlier.
I don't write with the intention to have a "moral" or an incredibly philosophical comment on life come out of my story, but I think what makes a good novel good is that there is something said about life underneath the basic story. That is what will resonate with us, what will make us remember it more.
So what will my Oxford story be about?
I suppose what I'm interested in exploring is the idea of presumed love as a negative force. If love is something true, then it should be pursued in the least selfish terms possible. It ideally should purify us. We should become our best self under the influence of the object of our affection. Yet, so many people (especially young people) let what they think is love consume them. It devours them, they forget who they are or who they want to be. A positive thing, when applied incorrectly becomes a poison. Chasing an idealized relationship with an incompatible person is such a waste, such a trap people fall into.
That's a cynical thought, isn't it? I don't want to write an entirely cynical book, though. I think there is something about the fleeting beauty of being young and bright, with a world of potential ahead of you. Beauty is always more apparent when it is fleeting, of course- at least in retrospect. I think the story must be a somewhat realistic contrast of highs and lows. Sometimes those high points are positively euphoric, but it ebbs quite low in response. It should be a balance.
My main character, Ben, will have a classic source of tension, that aching desire to follow whatever it is you want from life, but getting caught up in the expectations others have of you.
I want a collage of experience from my characters. In some ways it will be a classic "dormitory" novel. The mixing personalities and backgrounds put into an academic pressure cooker. It breeds some of the best and worst moments of a person's life. But I want to go beyond that, I want to show what happens afterwards. I keep falling back on Brideshead Revisited, Waugh captures so well how the little incidents and the relationships you form can echo through the rest of your life as much as you try put it in the past.
Anyway, my semester is nearly done, so I'll be able to put some more time into this story over the next month.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Crossing into the Mind of the Male

As I'm drafting my Oxford story, I've realized that for it to function properly, it must be in the first person. When I mentioned this to my father (I often press-gang him into being a sounding  board) he said, "But your main character is male!"
I suppose there is a gap, a divide that one must cross when writing from the perspective of a character of a different gender. However, I'm not sure if there's any more of a gap when you're writing from a character of a different ethnic, economic, or cultural background. Though I believe most writers leave markings of themselves on their characters, most of us would say our characters are quite distinct from ourselves. This certainly breaks that age old trope that everything is autobiographical, though fifty years from now, undergrads will try and apply that theory to your work in essays they wrote the night before.
This will be my first time writing such a lengthy piece from a male point of view. I've decided not to make a fuss about it. I think that if I over-analyze and try to "sound masculine" that it will feel artificial. I just have to be true to the character. Maybe I have some confidence because I've been around men all my
 life. I grew up with a pack of brothers, have mostly male friends, and I am a daddy's girl. I feel like I have a small advantage over some females when it comes to how men speak, think, and interact.
This character in particular also fulfills a sort of Nick Carraway role. Like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Ben (my character) is in many ways, an observer. He's an outsider and we gain insight into this world through his introduction to it.