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Archive for the month “May, 2012”

THE SEQUEL DOUBLE-STANDARD

As each new Sue Grafton novel rolls out, there’s delighted applause among Kinsey Millhone fans.

As each new “Fast and Furious” movie sequel rolls out, there’s derisive snickering about the lack of new ideas in Hollywood.

After a long hiatus, there was applause among readers when Stephen King finally finished the “Dark Tower” series.

When it was announced a few years back there would be a sixth installment in the hugely popular “Rocky” series, there were groans.

What’s going on here? It sort of seems like there’s a double-standard when it comes to an audience’s acceptance of sequels in books versus sequels in movies. Book sequels – YAY!  Movie sequels – BOO!

Writers trying to break into publishing are encouraged to look at writing books with potential to become a series. Publishers love series because readers love series, we’re told. “The Cat Who…” mystery books. The Hunger Games. The multiple Nora Roberts series. Any romance writer’s stuff for that matter. Readers can’t get enough.

But if you write a movie sequel, well, you’re just cashing in on a popular original, not trying to tell a good story on its own. The sequel is never as good as the original, they say. But we still buy ticktets. We put our money down, and we complain. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull” was a hugely anticipated sequel. It got a lot of criticism, as sequels do, but sold a lot of tickets, so Hollywood is happy.

There are exceptions, of course. Fans generally consider “Star Trek II” to be better than “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. But by “Star Trek VI”, the series was finished.  “Star Trek the Next Generation” only made it four movies. The “Back to the Future” trilogy is very popular, but the second installment is just seen as a bridge to the third.

On the other hand, Sue Grafton has written more than fifteen Kinsey Millhone books.  There are two dozen “Cat Who” books. Nora Roberts has published more than two dozen different series of books.

But then there’s a third category: the successful book AND movie franchises. We’re talking about Harry Potter here, of course. And the Lord of the Rings.  What’s different there, maybe, is these franchises were, by design, multi-part events. Harry Potter was always going to be seven books and seven* movies (yes, Deathly Hallows, the movie, was two parts, but they’re both from the same books). The Lord of the Rings was always a trilogy. The movies, also, were great on their own, but undoubtedly benefitted from being based on wildly popular books. Would “Fellowship of the Ring” or “Harry Potter” become as iconic if they’d been films only, never books? That may be a topic for another blog.

Plus, these stories were told as multi-parters from the start. Every Rocky movie, however, was just another episode dreamed up to put the Italian Stallion back on the screen because it was fun – and profitable. (By the way, that last Rocky movie was way better than I suspected it would be.)

So, if there is a double standard, then why? Are book writers just better at writing sequels? Books are a different medium (duh), but is it a better medium for sequels?

I think maybe reading a book feels more…intimate, lile something more is going on in your head. Movies give you a visual landscape and put an actor’s face on the hero’s body; but its someone else’s interpretation of a story -either script alone or script by way of a novel – not your own interpreration. With books, you’re free to interpret the words however you want, so it feels more personal, more yours.

Books make you do the work; you form the images in your mind. Maybe once you’ve seen the first movie, you’ve gotten the full experience of that screenwriter’s/director’s vision. Maybe by movie 2 or 3, you feel like you’ve seen it already. Even if every book features the same characters and similar events, our minds can make it feel new. Maybe in book one, the hero is played in your head by Tom Hanks and in book two by Benedict Cumberbatch. Whatever.

So, the next time you read my blog posts, I hope you imagine me as David Tennant. The experience will be fresh and new even if the writing isn’t. That’s what I’m doing.

WHAT WRITERS CAN LEARN FROM “THE WIGGLES”

The world of children’s television was rocked this past week by news of a major cast shake-up for the famous Australian group “The Wiggles”. The group has been around for more than twenty years, singing, dancing, having adventues and generally enthralling toddler and pre-school audiences everywhere. Now, three of the four “Wiggles” – Murray, Jeff, and Greg – are retiring, leaving only one original “Wiggle”, Anthony. He will be joined be three new Wiggles – including the first woman to don one of the signature, colorful shirts (she’ll be the new “yellow Wiggle”)

This is huge news.

Who gives a fat fig, you say?

Their audience does. Big time.

Their audience is HUGE. Tens of thousands. All over the world.

People really do care about this. Just like they cared when Mr. Rogers retired. Or Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street” died. Or when “Barney” got cancelled. (It did get cancelled, didn’t it? Maybe that was just wishful thinking.)

Anyway, these shows matter to people. Sure, you can explain part of that because the audience is largely kids who get attached to things. But it’s not just kids out there watching. It’s their parents, their baby-sitters, the teachers who use their spin-off materials (videos, books, games, etc.) in school. Kids don’t write angry letters and quit buying videos, books and merchandise. Adults do. “The Wiggles” are important to them too.

And “The Wiggles” are important to writers. Whether we write for kids or adults, we can learn from them. And I don’t just mean the lyrics to “Big Red Car”.

You really want to know those lyrics now, right? Go here, then come back. I’ll wait.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gGFWbUYma8&feature=related

Feel better? Right, here, then, is what writers can learn from “The Wiggles”:

  • CHARACTER MATTERS – The fact that the yellow, purple and red Wiggles are all leaving wouldn’t be news if people didn’t love those characters. If not, they’d be like the red shirts on classic “Star Trek”, totally interchangeable and expendable. There would be no emotional investment. Everyone would just assume that Purple Wiggle was gonna get phasered in act two and his carcass fed to some Tribbles after the Big Red Car (“Toot toot chugga chugga big red car.”) backed over him a few times. But that doesn’t happen, of course. Purple Wiggle oversleeps and the others help him, or whatever. They segue into another song, or a story, or throw it to Captain Feathersword to sign about pirate life, or something. Every episode, to a kid, is like hanging with some friends who will always be there.

WRITERLY LESSON: Make people love your characters. Even if they’re meanies like Oscar the Grouch or Hannibal Lecter. (Somebody really needs to write THAT movie.)

  • STORY MATTERS – Okay, so a typical Wiggles concert or TV episode isn’t big on plot. But still, if all the Wiggles did is stand around,  the tiny attention spans of its audience couldn’t handle it. Thanks to coffee and Twitter, the kids’ parents aren’t much better. The Wiggles manage to tell simple little stories about going to bed, playing nicely, and, yes, travelling in that BIg Red Car (“We travel near and we travel far.”) that get to the point without a lot of extraneous detail. When the actor who played Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street” died, there was a lot of hand-wringing and worry about how to handle this. The “Sesame Street” writers stepped up and used the opportunity to teach a very difficult lesson about life and death; earning the thanks and praise of appreciative audiences and critics.

WRITERLY LESSON: (A) Your audience is fickle, easily bored, and easily distracted. Keep your plot tight. (B) Writing is about taking chances. Don’t be thrown by curves in the road. Go with them and see what comes of it.

  • AUDIENCE MATTERS – Why are you building your stories, developing your characters, reading this blog, if you don’t care about the reader/viewer/listener? The people in the seats, in front of the screen or in the bookstore, cash in hand, are who you’re doing this writing thing for. Children’s programming gets knocked for being merchandising mills for toys and books and games. There’s some validity to that with some shows, and those shows burn out after a few years. However, shows like “The Wiggles”, which has been around over twenty years, or “Sesame Street”, which is more than forty(!) years old, don’t last because kids like the toys. They survive because their writers and performers respect the audience and put out the best programs they can. They know that their product is for the audience and want the audience’s respect and devotion.

WRITERLY LESSON: Do your best. Always.

Shows like “The Wiggles” and “Sesame Street” are ground-breaking. This advice, is not. You’ve heard all this before. But here’s the thing: it’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day of word counts and plot outlines and query letters. It’s easy to forget the big picture of what you’re really doing, which is trying to tell a good story, the best way you can tell it. It took a red wiggle to remind me. Let me big your red wiggle.

That didn’t come out right.

Well, you get the point.

NEXT WEEK: “I love you. You love me…”

CINEMA AND CIGARETTES

Earlier this month, the National Association of Attorneys General sent a letter signed by the AG’s from thirty-eight states to ten movie, TV and media companies. The subject of the letter was the depiction of smoking in movies aimed at kids. The letter was addressed to Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), with copies to several other executives, including Harvey and Bob Weinstein (The Weinstein Company), Sumner Redstone (Viacom), and Howard Stringer (Sony Corp.).

The letter wasn’t a threat to sue,  at least not an overt one. Several studies were cited about the correlation between youngsters seeing smoking on-screen and becoming smokers themselves, but that’s about it. Not a single statute was cited, or declaration of intent to sue made. It wasnt a cease and desist.  Not exactly.

Well, except maybe this part: “Each time the industry releases another movie that depicts smoking, it does so with the full knowledge of the harm it will bring to children who watch it. The specific steps outlined above are ones that Twentieth Century Fox can and should immediately adopt. We would appreciate your promptly confirming Twentieth Century Fox’s willingness to adopt the above recommendations and the date by which such recommendations will be implemented.”

Those “recommendations”? Here they are:

  1. Adopt published corporate policies for the elimination of tobacco depictions in youth-rated movies.
  2. Include effective anti-tobacco spots on all future DVDs and Blu-ray videos of its films that depict smoking, regardless of MPAA rating and require similar spots appear before the movie goes on TV or Internet download, as well as encouraging theaters to run the spots too.
  3. Certify in the closing credits of all of its films that have tobacco imagery that “No person or entity associated with the this film received payment or anything of value, or entered into any agreement, in connection with the depiction of tobacco products.”
  4. Keep all future movies free of tobacco brand display, “both packaging and promotional collateral.”

Read the whole letter here:

http://www.naag.org/assets/files/pdf/signons/20120510.Smoking_in_the_Movies_News_Corporation_with_List.pdf

On the one hand, it’s hard to get too concerned about this letter. Of course we don’t want the films  our kids watch to send the message that smoking is cool. Or drinking. Or violence. The AG’s aren’t saying they’re going to sue anybody. And they do seem to only be talking about movies targeted to kids (presumably G and PG-rated. What about PG-13?), not ALL movies. They’re just looking out for our children’s welfare.

On the other hand, is this censorship? AG’s don’t send a friendly reminder to anybody with one hand unless they’ve got a big stick in the other hand behind their back to whack them with if they don’t comply. What’s the big stick here? And what happens if running  “just say no to cigarettes” spots on the part of the DVD everyone skips isn’t enough? Will the AG’s go to Sony or Viacom and make them edit out any cigarettes that appear on screen?

And does it stop with cigarettes? How about alcohol on screen? Or violence? There’s a scene in “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” (an oldie, but you can get it on DVD…which I did) where Snoopy and Linus have a cartoony fist fight over Linus’s blanket. Will that movie get an “R” now in the name of protecting kids? Going way back, what about Laurel and Hardy or Three Stooges? Probably not a big market these days, but there’s all sorts of comic drinking, fighting and occasionally smoking in those ostensibly family-films. What about them?

But getting back to the point of this letter, smoking on film, I offer an other-other hand (I dragged my wife in here because I ran out of hands): is this really a big deal? Aren’t studios already kind of policing themselves? I can’t remember ANY film my kids have watched that showed or even mentioned a cigarette on screen. Granted, my kids are little and we (thankfully) haven’t gotten into the teenager movies yet. We’re mostly about Smurfs and Muppets and the like at this point. Maybe the movies marketed to teens are different? Would any of this make any difference for them? I don’t know.

What do you think?

WHAT BOOKSTORES ARE DOING WRONG

I love going to the bookstore.

But the way stores are run is all wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. For die-hards like me, there’s still  a feel, an atmosphere,  an electricity. There’s just something about wandering the bookstore, taking in all at once the literary potential to be informed, entertained or moved cannot be matched, no matter how good the website or how many “G” your app runs at. But I can feel it fading.

I’m not alone in this. It’s not news that physical bookstores are failing. The smell is almost as strong as the sweet smell of old books. The electric pulse is fizzling a little in the current climate.

Why is this happening?

Price, of course, is one reason. Financial times being what they are, its hard to justify plunking down $30 for the new hardcover Stephen King at the bookstore when you could get it for half that online.

But that’s not the whole story.

There are still enough purists and /or Amazon haters willing to pay full price. And there are even more people, like me, who happily – eagerly – go to the brick and mortar location.

But they’re not buying. Not much anyway. And the ones that are, well, they’re fading.

So if price isn’t solely to blame, what is it? What would make the holdouts part with their cash rather than flock to the Internet discount bin? Bookstores offer little more than the physical equivalent of Amazon’s catalog when they should be promoting the bookstore experience. There are so many things, besides coffee, physical stores can offer l, but aren’t,  or at least not enough. Here’s a few:

  • TOO MANY BOOKS.  That probably sounds weird coming from me, as both an avid reader and a writer of books. But there is a certain amount of sensory overload that can occur in a bookstore, especially a big chain store. It’s bad enough when you have one book in mind and go looking for that one, worse still when you don’t really know what you want. “But I like to browse,” You say. Sure you do. So do I. But browsing is often not the same thing as buying. Also, I’m not sure “too many” books is entirely the problem. Maybe what I should have said is…
  • BOOKSTORES PUSH THE WRONG BOOKS. If I’m sitting at home reading book reviews and I decide I want “The Hunger Games” or “Twilight” or whatever is hot right now, I’m probably not going to drive to the store and buy it. I’m going to open a new window on my computer and purchase it in a couple clicks, maybe as an e-book. But if I’m in the bookstore, the big titles are the only ones that get attentions. They get the space, they get the prominence. I’ll look at them there…then go home and order them. What bookstores should do to stand out, to offer service to the customer they maybe can’t get elsewhere, is to promote the stuff that right now gets crowded on the dingy shelves in the back: local interest books; the independently published books; maybe a bigger, more promintent, section with employee picks. Why not even throw in CUSTOMER picks? Make customers a part of the experience. That brings me to my next point.
  • MAYBE IN THIS NEW ERA OF BOOK SELLING, STORES NEED TO PUSH THE EXPERIENCE, NOT THE BOOKS. You can get books online, cheaper and (in the case of e-books especially), faster. If bookstores want to compete, maybe they need to stop simply setting up shelves and filling them with books. I can scroll through virtual shelves on the computer without, you know, even have to walk around. Maybe, instead, the bookstore should offer me something I can’t get at Amazon to entice me to (1) come into  he store and (2) buy. Things like (a) MORE BOOK SIGNINGS. Readers love having signed books. Authors (most) love to do it. It’s hard (so far) to sign an e-book. Seems obvious to me. Ditto (2) MORE READINGS.

Authors are thrilled when someone asks them to read. If you can’t get the author, get a staff member, get someone from the local theatre community to act out a scene (community theatre people love an excuse to get on stage), get retired folks, parents, teachers, whoever. All of this should be done with permission, of course, but I can’t imagine any publisher/author objecting to free advertising. There’s no reason there can’t be readings going on every hour a bookstore is open.

  • JUST BE MORE CREATIVE – THINK OUTSIDE THE COVER You store managers and executives need to match the creativity in the things you sell with your own creativity in selling them. Host more book clubs. Set up Lincoln-Douglas style debates between, I don’t know, Harry Potter fans and Game of Thrones fans. Bring in some historians from the local college to discuss that new biography. Big new legal thriller on the best seller list? Host a mock trial. Some hot, new kid’s book? Have kids in t0 design and build their own monster/robot/castle/whatever. Don’t just tell people you have the new book. We already know that. Tell us how you’re having fun with it and invite us to the party.

What it comes down to is this: bookstores can no longer just be a place that sells books. Just selling expensive coffee isn’t enough. Bookstores have to become places not just to get books, but to appreciate them. Revel in them. Roll around naked and fondle them. There should be so much stuff going on in your stores that selling books seems (almost) secondary. Make the book buying experience a full-on, tactile, hands-on, multi-media, sensory experience. You can’t get that from Amazon.

See you there. I hope.

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