Story Vs. Characters

In 1996, I saw a movie that changed my life. The movie was Independence Day, featuring Bill Pullman and Will Smith.

The part that changed my life was this: Stories revolve around the characters who live to tell them.

I remember thinking, as I left the theater, how incredible it was that with a body count as high as the movie had, none of the important characters were killed. If a character died, it was intentional, sacrificial. With lasers and bullets flying everywhere, you might have thought that SOMEONE would have been killed unintentionally, but no.

Stories are told by the living. Why would the script writer tell the story of a man who accidently died in a car accident? That would make for one sad movie.

I operated by this understanding for years. Every time someone would point out how implausible it was that all of the characters got through a war or something like that, I would think, why would the author follow the ones who died?

But then I started reading George R. R. Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and all of my preconceived notions died like so many of Martin’s characters. I don’t mean to spoil the series for anyone, but if you’ve heard anything about it, you know not to get too attached to any of the characters. No one is safe from the author’s pen stroke of death.

As a man who is usually more fascinated by the characters than the story itself, this troubles me. How can I escape into a world of fantasy when it is as cruel as the real world?

Now, I know that authors use terrible events in the lives of their characters to prove their mettle and to draw readers in, but there is usually an unspoken rule that things will work out well in the end. And if the character happens to die, it will be a noble death, one that gives closure to the storyline.

But if the story is more important than the characters, then anything goes.

Which is more important to you? Story or characters? Do you ever feel cheated by the author’s choices to kill certain characters? Or would you feel cheated if things worked out TOO well for everyone?

8 Questions | Meet Author Ben Avery

It was lunchtime, and since our bookstore is in a state of massive renovation, the book buyers were having a sales meeting in the break room where the rest of us eat lunch. I was attempting to ignore the ordering discussions by reading the second in the George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, A Clash of Kings, when the sales rep, Larry, asked me a question.

“What are you reading?”

“It’s a George R. R. Martin book,” I said. “The one right after A Game of Thrones, which HBO just made into a series.”

“I know that series,” he said. “Did you know that my son Ben wrote the Marvel comic book adaptation for Martin’s Hedge Knight series?”

“Really? I didn’t think Martin was big on other writers touching his characters.”

“He’s not,” said Larry. “But he liked what my son did. In fact, he said that if Marvel ever wants to adapt any of his other things, my son is the only one he’ll trust to do the job.”

“Wow,” said I. “Do you think Ben would be willing to do an interview with me for my blog?”

“You should ask him.”

So I did.

Capt. Ben Avery, of the Starship Awesome.

The interview:

1. How did you get into writing?

I’ve always been writing and telling stories, since I was old enough to string sentences together. And I was always making comics, although I got impatient with how much time it took to draw them. Professionally, after I graduated college, I just started writing comics with some friends and made some contacts with artists, and that led to me getting to do a try out for a writing gig, which turned into my first professional writing: George R. R. Martin’s The Hedge Knight.

2. You did the comic book adaptation for George R. R. Martin’s Hedge Knight series. Martin is well-known for not wanting anyone else touching his works or characters. How did you come to work on his books through Marvel Comics?

Well, it wasn’t originally published by Marvel. Originally, a studio got the license from Mr. Martin, and they shopped it around to publishers, with Image taking it up at first. Then, after some weirdness with Image, it was moved to Devil’s Due, and after some weirdness THERE, Marvel picked it up.

Now, how did that original studio get the license? They promised to be true to his original story. And that’s how I got the job, too. I worked hard to make my sample script as close to his story as possible. In fact, the first six pages of The Hedge Knight is almost exactly what my sample script was. Mr. Martin appreciated how hard I worked to stay true to the original. The way I see it, on a job like that, my job is to be invisible. My job is to give something to the artist that allows them to shine, and to spotlight the original. After all, it’s George R.R. Martin’s The Hedge Knight, not Ben Avery’s.

3. How does your writing change when adapting someone else’s work as opposed to working on an original series?

If I am working on something not original with me, either a true life story, history, someone’s fictional story, or the Bible, my goal is to keep the integrity of their story within a new medium. That does mean some changes have to be made, but I will do my best to make sure changes in the format or length do not change the heart of the story.

So my job is to choose what comes out to shorten it. Or what needs to be added because comics are a visual medium. Transitions in one medium have to be done differently.

It’s not always easy, but it’s fun.

4. What do you want people to know about you aside from your writing?

This is a tough question. I mean, it’s not like I’m a private person. I just can’t think of something I particularly want people to know. I guess I could use this to say I also podcast . . . I host a podcast about sci-fi, fantasy, and Christianity. The podcast is called Strangers and Aliens and it’s a lot of fun talking about the spiritual themes found in the tv shows, comics, and movies we enjoy.

5. Any advice for other writers?

Get a good editor. Find a person or people who you trust to be honest with you and also know grammar and story. Set them loose on what you’ve written.

This person should not be your mother, unless she’s able to separate you the child room you the writer. This person should not be your spouse, or your best friend, or your grandmother unless they are able to really look at the work and forget your relationship.

This is especially important if you are self-publishing or going through some sort of digital publishing service with no editorial oversight. The digital age makes it possible for everyone to do anything, it seems, but unfortunately, that means that far too many people feel like they are masters of everything, too. But I would say that even a master editor, when they take on the role of writer, needs someone who can edit their writing.

6. If you could have an afternoon with a character from one of your works, who would you choose? Why?

The Timeflyz, from my all ages graphic novel series. First, I like them. I’d enjoy hanging out with them — of all my characters, these are the characters who surprise me the mist with their actions and reactions to my plots. Second, I’d love for them to tell me about some of the people they have met in their travels through time. And maybe I could convince them to take me along with them for a short trip . . .

7. What is your writing space like?

It’s a mess. A serious, serious mess. Sadly. Eventually, we’re going to get the money to move my office downstairs and shuffle around all our bedrooms. When we do that, I give the new office three weeks before it’s a mess. A serious, serious mess.

I do, however, often leave the house to work in places like our local grocery store’s cafe and Starbucks or something like that. I often need the change of scenery, but also I need to have people around me . . . Just not people I am responsible for.

8. What book is on your nightstand at the moment?

I’m reading The Skin Map by Stephen Lawhead right now. There are other books on my nightstand, but this is the one I am actually reading. I’ve been a big fan of Lawhead since his earliest writings, when he was doing sci-fi instead of fantasy, and followed him through his fantasy books, but in the last decade or so I haven’t read any of his new books. I’m playing catch up now. Also right there is Eion Colfer’s And Another Thing, the sixth book in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but I just haven’t been able to bring myself to read it. It’s just not the same, a non-Douglas Adams chronicle of Arthur Dent and Zaphod and Marvin.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If you’d like to know more about Ben Avery, check out his website (http://benavery.com). Thanks for reading!

Book Club Report | A Game of Thrones

Well, the book discussion was last night. I can proudly say that a good time was had by all who attended, both of us. With legitimate excuses, the others who I expected to show up were unable, which left the responsibility of filling two hours with intelligent discussion about George R. R. Martin in the capable hands of my friend Bruce and myself.

By the way, if you don’t want any spoilers for A Game of Thrones, you should stop reading this post and go read A Game of Thrones. But I digress…

After claiming a booth in the back of Graydon’s Crossing, Bruce and I started off the evening with genial conversation. By the time we were done shooting the breeze and settled into the idea of looking over the menu, our waitress has visited the table three times to see if we were ready to order. The fourth time was the charm, however. Bruce ordered the Beer City Pale Ale, a drink that was the collaboration of 10 local breweries in celebration of the fact that Grand Rapids, Michigan was recently crowned “Beer City, USA“. I couldn’t make up my mind, so I got a sampler of three beers, the Beer City Pale Ale, Dragonmead Sin Eater, and Magner’s Irish Cider.

Once the drinks got to the table, our discussion began. Bruce had painstakingly taken and typed up notes for all of the points and themes that he wished to discuss, only to leave them accidentally at home. He did remember the chart that he found though, which proved invaluable in discussing the different characters and remembering all of their names.

We discussed our views on who the main character of the novel was and whether Martin gave us any heroes. Bruce made the case that Eddard Stark was the main character of the book, as most of the plot revolved around him and his struggle to act morally in increasingly evil scenarios. I thought that the true hero of the book was Tyrion Lannister, as his character develops from being the court fool to being instructed to rule over his nephew, the new king. Tyrion’s ability to rise to the top of whatever situation he is in, to inspire others to follow him, and to overcome his brokenness puts him in the hero spot in my opinion.

We talked about what Martin was trying to say by showing that Eddard’s strict moral code led to his downfall, while Tyrion’s flexible morality meant his survival. We didn’t really come to a conclusion on the matter, assuming that the theme had not fully played out by the end of the book one and that we would be able to better see the author’s intentions further into the series.

We talked about how surprising it was that Martin allowed the book to be made into an HBO mini-series, given his views on fan-fiction and allowing others to have control over his characters.

We discussed the different points of view that were used to tell the tale. We both enjoyed the fact that we got to see the story through so many of the character’s eyes. And jumping from conflict to conflict kept the story interesting and fast-paced. We talked about the fact that While most of the Starks got to present the story from their own lips, Robb and Rickon were left out. We see their stories through the lens of either Jon, Bran, or Catelyn. Also, Ser Jaime Lannister was notably absent in the narrator’s seat. The reasons we came up with were that the characters of Rickon and Ser Jaime were mostly one-dimensional (they don’t undergo any great change throughout the book) and narration from their perspective would have been tiresome. For Robb though, we are held at a distance, I think, because he is undergoing too great a change to portray well from his own perspective. At the beginning of the story, Robb is pretend fighting with sticks, but by the end of the story, he is taking on Ser Jaime and leading a group of battle-hardened warriors and ends up being named “King of the North”.

This led to a discussion on the different claims to the throne by the end of the book. With Robert dead, Joffrey takes the throne, though he is not Robert’s real son. The rightful heir of Robert is a bastard working in an armorer’s shop. Though with that knowledge being secret to most, many of those in the realm  believe that Stannis Baratheon will challenge Joffrey’s kingship and take it by force, but then who claims the kingship by Stannis’ younger brother Renly. And that is leaving out the fact that the Baratheon line was only just established on the throne after the Targaryen line has been exiled and Daenerys is fast-approaching to reclaim the empire for herself. But very little of this will matter when the Others overcome the wall (across which another character has claimed to be King Beyond the Wall) and reign down their undead terrors upon the living.

After this, we discussed the leadership styles and some of the differences in the societal structures between the kingdoms, the wall, and the plains. We talked about our favorite scenes and favorite quotes (“Mercy is never a mistake” – Eddard Stark) and what really happened in the tent when the maegi took over care for Khal Drogo.

In the end, we both agreed that George R. R. Martin knows how to tell a good tale. And since I got the second book in the series for my birthday, I’m looking forward to digging into the continued story.

That, however, is not the next book club selection. For anyone wishing to join next month’s book discussion (and digitally contributing in the comments is good too), we’ll be reading Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs.

We decided to alternate fiction with non-fiction, and both of us liked the idea of reading Chabon. It’s also topic-appropriate, since Bruce and his wife are going to have a baby, and my wife and I just had another one.

Long post today. Just the way it goes sometimes. Anyway, thanks for reading!

Winter is Coming. Also, a Book Discussion.

Tomorrow night is the scheduled book discussion of A Game of Thrones. The details are here if you want to come. And for anyone who is coming, I wanted to offer a last-minute cram session for the discussion, along with some things to consider in advance of meeting.

If you didn’t bother reading the book, there are some good in-depth synopses here and here. These are also good if you read the book a while ago and just need to brush up on the basics.

These are some of the questions we’ll discuss:

  • What were your thoughts on the different viewpoints in the novel? Was there a point of view that you felt was missing?
  • What instances of symbolism did you find? How did your interpretation of those symbols skew your reading of the book?
  • Who was the main character? Was there a hero?
  • Compare and contrast life on the wall with life in the kingdoms and on the plains.
  • What is the next book that we should read as a book club?

I’ll post again next week with how the discussion went and announce what the next book will be.

Birthday Gift Report 2012

I had a wonderful 30th birthday.

I took the day off to spend with my family. We got to sleep in (and with a one-month old, this was a miracle in itself). We went out to a wonderful lunch at On The Border. I had my best day ever on my blog (104, just saying). And I got a pile of wonderful gifts, courtesy of my wife and my extended family.

Let me offer a disclaimer to the rest of this post. The best part of my birthday was being able to spend it with family. The gifts are all wonderful, but mean less than a toot to me in comparison to that. I just don’t want anyone thinking that I’m being braggy about my new stuff or that my priorities are messed up.

Okay, now you can look at my awesome gifts.

Here’s the rundown.

On Writing by Stephen King – Many writer’s have talked about how influential this book has been on their lives as writers. I look forward to finding out what all the fuss is about.

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin – The second in the Song of Ice and Fire series following A Game of Thrones. By the way, the book discussion for A Game of Thrones is happening this Thursday. Drop me a note if you are planning on coming and haven’t told me yet.

While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut – I didn’t even know that this book existed, and Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors. While Mortals Sleep is a collection of his previously unpublished short fiction. I’m only about 80 pages in so far, but I have no idea why this was not published until now. I’ll do a full book review later though.

Cuisenart Supreme Grind Automatic Burr Coffee Mill – If you are going to get a coffee grinder, a burr grinder is the way to go. It is the best way to have uniformly ground coffee beans for use in making any kind of coffee.

Black Crema Coffee Press by Bodum – This is an 8-cup french press to go with my coffee grinder. I’ve been spending too much time and money by going out for coffee when I could be staying at home for writing nights. This is the perfect way to fuel my caffeine-driven writing fests.

Meijer Organics Whole Bean Coffee – To use in the grinder and the french press. Pure Arabica beans means a smoother, less acidic cup of joe. Good stuff.

Homestead Cobs-a-Twirl Squirrel Feeder – My wife knows how every year I put a squirrel feeder on my birthday list and every year I don’t get one. Well, I didn’t put it on my list this year, but this is the year that I got it. I have it installed already, but so far, the squirrels seem wary of it. Anyway, I can’t wait to watch them figure out how to get the corn from the feeder. The box says it is fun for squirrels, but I am inclined to believe that the only one getting any fun out of this contraption is me.

Biggby Gift Card – For those nights when I want to go out for my very favorite coffee drink, Biggby’s Frozen Mint Mocha. Oh man, they are good.

On The Border Gift Card (not pictured) – Already used it and took advantage of the fact that I am on the OTB email list and get special deals for my birthday. My wife and I got free queso and a free dessert and the gift card covered the rest of our meal.

I could not have asked for a nicer birthday, nor a nicer set of gifts. I can’t wait to read all of my new books and report to you my thoughts. Thanks again to all of you who wished me a happy birthday on here or on my Facebook page. All of your wishes came true.

Book Club Update | Time & Place

I’ve floated the date of the book discussion of A Game of Thrones out to the group of guys who I know have read the book and we have confirmed August 23rd as the date. The book discussion will start at 7pm.

We’ll be meeting at Graydon’s Crossing. The discussion is free, the food is not. Bring money to eat or drink. Browse the menu by clicking on the picture.

The address is 1223 Plainfield NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49505.

The goal of the book discussion is to enrich each others’ understanding of the book and to think about the story, characters, and message critically.

Or we could just talk about the bits we liked and why we liked them.

I’ll leave it open to the people who show up how we do it.

If you think you might be coming, drop me a note in the comments so I can reserve adequate tables at the pub.

When Bad Things Happen to Characters (and then Keep on Happening)

So, I finished A Game of Thrones. I’m not bragging. I was just caught up in it.

But I met up with my friend Bob the other night to do some writing and we spent a few minutes talking about the book (he joined my book club – see here). Bob is having a tough time getting into it. Admittedly, it is an 800 page book with a huge cast of characters and Bob has little to no time to read, but the same things are true of me and I had no trouble getting hooked on A Game of Thrones.

So what is the difference?

The difference, I think, is that Bob is a modern knight who believes in chivalry and noble fights. And I like the evil characters almost as much as the good ones.

Bob told me that there was only one or two characters that he really liked and that he was sure that if he keeps reading, within three chapters or so something horrible would happen to them. He isn’t wrong.

Authors cause terrible things to happen to their characters all the time. They do it to increase tension in the plots. They do it to show the mettle of their characters. They do it in order to make the resolution all the sweeter because the stakes were as high as they could be. They do it for shock value.

I was relatively young when I first read 1984 by George Orwell. *Spoiler Alert* Big Brother wins. When I read the ending for the first time, I had to read it again just to make sure that I didn’t miss something. This was completely unlike any of the fairy-tales or sitcoms that I was used to, where everything works out in the end. At the realization that not all stories had to have happy endings, my worldview changed and with it my reading preferences.

I went on to devour the works of Kurt Vonnegut. A friend passed me a copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 because he didn’t like it. I drank it down like an alcoholic drinks down a bitter ale. Dystopian books took prominence on my bookshelves. They became a part of who I am.

In a way, I’m glad that Bob isn’t having an easy time reading A Game of Thrones because it means that the world isn’t full of jaded folk like me. The world needs more people like him.

Book Club Update

I am having trouble sticking to my 100 page per week goal in order to finish reading A Game of Thrones by mid-August. I can’t put the book down. I’m like 600 pages in and I know that I’m going to finish it soon.

Part of me says that I should slow down and savor the reading experience. I should be making notes about my thoughts as I read. I should be looking for writing devices and topics to discuss when the book club meets.

And then the other part of me says, “Read, you fool!”

I’ll give you one guess as to which part I am listening to.

Maybe I’ll have time to read it a second time before we meet and I’ll make good on my intentions.

So for those of you who wanted to join the book club but were scared off by the amount of reading there is to be done, rest easy. It is a fast read, and addictive.

Also, I’m pretty sure that we’ve decided on a location for the book club to meet.

Date and time have yet to be determined. It’ll depend on what the new baby will allow (she’s due in less than 3 weeks now).

Back to School & Book Club Reminders…

I just got an email from the fine people at Coursera and thought I’d share it with you.

How does the Internet work? Why were LinkedIn passwords easier to break into? What is the time value of money? What do the novels Alice and Wonderland, Dracula, and Frankenstein say about the relationship between science, technology, and our hopes and fears? Did my 3rd-grade teacher explain only a suboptimal algorithm for multiplying two numbers?

Come geek-out with us over these and tons of other interesting questions explored through our summer courses!

We’ll be sending out this newsletter 1-2 times a month to keep you updated on new course offerings and Coursera news. We hate spam too, so we’ll only send out our newsletter with information that we think will be useful for you. You can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook or Google+ to get the most current updates.

Happy studying!

Your Coursera Team

If you remember, I am signed up for the free course being offered by the University of Michigan called “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World“. Back then, I asked if anyone would be willing to do this with me. My good friend Bob volunteered and a few of my Facebook friends showed interest, but I thought I’d mention it again for any newcomers to be able to join us. If you are curious check out the link here.

And not so long ago, I blogged about the book club that my friend Bruce and I were starting. Anyone is welcome to join us, either in physical form (if you live in the West Michigan area) or in a digital form (if you live anywhere else).

We’re reading A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, and we’ll be meeting to discuss it in mid-August. That means that you still have time to pick up a copy and read about 100 pages per week to finish in time for the discussion. Even if you are reading other books at the time, you can squeeze in 100 pages of this book. It is a fast read and engaging so far, and I’m only about 100 pages in.

I realize that HBO recently made this book into a mini-series that was well-received, but I ask that you take the time to read the book. I’m sure that people who have both seen the series and read the book can attest to the fact that books are almost always better to their on-screen counterparts.

Anyway, I just wanted to remind you about what we have going on here at my blog. If you are interested in joining the book club, but you can’t afford the book (or if you don’t have access to a good library), send me an email. I have an extra copy for the first interested party.

Be sure to mention in the comments if you are thinking about joining me in either of these endeavors!

A Game of Thrones | Summer Reading

This past weekend, my wife and I got together with my coworker, Debbie, and her husband, Bruce, to play board games and eat pizza. Our guests met while working together at Baker Book House (in fact, back when they started, I was the store trainer and trained them how to be good employees), but due to a company policy against married people working together, one of them had to find another job. Of course, Bruce ended up finding a job in another local, indie bookstore.

Now, my wife and Debbie are part of a book club that is primarily made up of people with some connection to Baker Book House (employees, friends of employees, spouses of employees, you get the idea). I’m not going to say that I am jealous of their group, but I’m jealous of their group. True, I am part of a men’s Bible study that reads books and the Bible together. True, I am part of a writer’s group that gets together to discuss our own books and occasionally other books that pass in front of us. But neither of those are really a book club.

Our first book club book

So, Bruce and I decided to start our own reading club. Our first book is going to be George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Though the book has been made into a faithful film adaptation by HBO, neither Bruce nor I have seen it, which is all to the good, as I am a firm believer in reading the book first when a filmed version is being made. This may make me a purist or a book snob, but I don’t care. Those names don’t bother me.”But when will you fit the reading in?” asked my wife, and rightfully so.

You see, my wife is pregnant and nearing the July due date and we are already parents of an adorable and energetic one-and-a-half year old. We also both work full-time and I do this writing thing when I have a moment or two to spare. Throw in family obligations and a small social life with friends and we already have a lot on our plate.

“I’ll find some time,” was my hopeful response.

Here’s the plan: Bruce and I are going to start now and read about 100 pages per week (it isn’t really that much). The book is a bit over 800 pages, so it will take about two months to finish. We’re going to meet up some time in August to discuss the book. We don’t know the date or the place yet. We’ll figure that out when the time gets closer.

Here’s the offer: If you want to be part of our book club, just mention your desire in the comments and read the book with us. Need the book? Get it here. If you are in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area in August and feel like being part of the discussion, you’re welcome to join us. I’m thinking that we’ll meet up in a public location anyway.

Here’ the challenge: What should the book club be called? We exist to balance the fact that our wives are part of a ladies book club which reads memoirs and pop fiction. I’m guessing that this book club that Bruce and I are starting is going to focus more on Fantasy/Sci-Fi or other more male-dominated genres or titles. Now, that doesn’t mean that we are excluding ladies from reading with us, it is just to define the type of books that we are going to read. If you have a book club name idea, leave that in the comments too.