Because some stories need to be told.
In 20 years of writing, I’ve never before encountered a story that demanded to be written, the sort of story where you’d actually be happy to discover that someone else had beaten you to the punch and written the exact same thing, because you just want it to be out there. But then, I hadn’t met the Night Witches.
I discovered the Night Witches by way of recon pilot and fabulous hat-wearer Eugenie Shakhovskaya after innocently asking my father-in-law, who is a war aviation buff, whether any women had flown in World War I. Not being particularly interested in World War II, I didn’t pay much attention to Shakhovskaya’s Great Patriotic War counterparts until I found myself with an orphaned plot thread about a female pilot who rescues a man. I toyed with possible settings. Why not a historical one?
Then I began reading about them. Young women 18 or 20 years old, flying slow, flammable wood and canvas biplanes designed as trainers and retrofitted to hold a few bombs. Shutting off their engines to glide over their targets making no sound except the whistle of wind through the control wires, a sound that reminded the Germans of witches’ brooms. Risking their lives to defend their beloved Motherland against invaders with the stated goal of wiping them all out. Why don’t we already have a book about this? Why don’t we have a movie about this?
The people. The stories. A navigator setting a distance record gets lost in the frozen Far East. A student sends a distraught letter to her astronomy professor after hearing that a bomb hit their observatory. A pilot has a confrontation with her commanding officer and later dies in a suspicious accident. Stories that demand to be told.
But the single biggest reason I wrote Among the Red Stars is because I made the mistake of telling my father-in-law that I was thinking of writing something about the Night Witches. He promptly told everyone he knew. At that point I had to write it.
You can see my pitch and first 250 in the Pitch Wars alternate showcase here.
Illustrations, top to bottom: Marina Raskova in the Far East; Polikarpov Po-2; Lilya Litvyak and her Yak-1. You can read my blog series about the Night Witches here and see the entire illustration gallery (for entertainment purposes only) here. See the rest of the blog hop after the cut.
So long had life together been that now
the second of January fell again
on a Tuesday, making her astonished brow
lift like a windshield wiper in the rain,
so that her misty sadness cleared, and showed
a cloudless distance waiting up the road.
So long had life together been that once
the snow began to fall, it seemed unending;
that, lest the flakes should make her eyelids wince,
I’d shield them with my hand, and they, pretending
not to believe that cherishing of eyes,
would beat against my palm like butterflies.
So alien had all novelty become
that sleep’s entanglements would put to shame
whatever depths the analysts might plumb;
that when my lips blew out the candle flame,
her lips, fluttering from my shoulder, sought
to join my own, without another thought.
So long had life together been that all
that tattered brood of papered roses went,
and a whole birch grove grew upon the wall,
and we had money, by some accident,
and tonguelike on the sea, for thirty days,
the sunlight threatened Turkey with its blaze.
So long had life together been without
books, chairs, utensils—only that ancient bed—
that the triangle, before it came about,
had been a perpendicular, the head
of some acquaintance hovering above
two points which had been coalesced by love.
So long had life together been that she
and I, with our joint shadows, had composed
a double door, a door which, even if we
were lost in work or sleep, was always closed:
somehow its halves were split and we went right
through them into the future, into night.
-Joseph Brodsky, Six Years Later, 1968
Happy sixth anniversary, Jordan, and happy World Poetry Day.
The Internet Archive recently dealt a crippling blow to productivity with the release of its MS-DOS games library, which includes some 2,400 games from the DOS era. While the original Oregon Trail is the collection’s crown jewel, it also includes another beloved piece of nostalgic edutainment: All the original Carmen Sandiego games.
For those who did not grow up in the DOS era, this is a series of geography games where you play a detective hunting the henchmen of the Villains International League of Evil (V.I.L.E.) as they attempt to make off with various improbable landmarks and national treasures. The flagship game, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego (1985), was quickly followed by Where in the USA, Where in Europe, and Where in Time. A second generation from the early 90’s, the Deluxe versions, rehashed most of the original games with better graphics and more clues and introduced Where in Space. Except where otherwise mentioned, I’ll be discussing the Deluxe games, because they were
the ones I played as a kid the more influential series.
They were top-notch games, frank about their educational content but still effortlessly entertaining, featuring witty writing and surprisingly addictive gameplay, and introducing one of the most recognizable game villains of all time. Wildly popular, they also spawned a highly successful gameshow spinoff and a cartoon.
But I’d like to talk about another way in which the games were a triumph: Representation.
The 90’s were a good time for representation in America. Rita Dove was poet laureate, Toni Morrison won the Nobel prize for literature, and women were making active progress into male-dominated fields, progress that would stall and even regress over the next twenty years. At the time, expanding educational programs to cover a wider range of human experience was a laudable and noncontroversial (if not always successful) goal, a goal reflected in educational media from the era, such as the Magic School Bus and Reading Rainbow. The Carmen Sandiego franchise fits naturally into this landscape.
The games make many choices that increase representation. The player is an AFGNCAAP* about whom the game makes no assumptions. NPCs are demographically varied. Most of the dossiers list traits alphabetically, so female is listed before male, and Carmen’s gang contains the same number of men and women. The latter is not only good representation, but also sensible game design, preventing the reveal of the criminal’s gender from narrowing the suspect list too much or too little — yet not every game makes that choice.
Naysayers often try to duck the representation question by claiming that they’d be accused of racism if they portrayed minorities in villainous or criminal roles, but the Carmen Sandiego franchise’s commonsense approach easily disarms this objection. Women and minorities appear as criminals, but they also appear as police chiefs, judges, and witnesses from all walks of life. One of the V.I.L.E. henchmen can be a black skateboarder without evoking the stereotype that inner-city kids are up to no good, because V.I.L.E. henchmen are just as often old white men in golf carts, and because black youth also appear in benign and helpful roles. (Where in the World is the least successful here; lacking the resources to include NPCs tailored to each country, it falls back on archetypes that could reasonably be anywhere, such as “translator” or “exchange student,” and those skew European.)
Although full of playful humor, the games never rely on stereotypes. Their character-based humor more often comes from contrasting traits, such as making the mohawked bruiser also a French chef.
Where in Space, with its cast of aliens, is an interesting case. The criminal roster lists three genders: Male, female, and androgynous. Departing from a strict gender binary is a highly unusual and progressive move; unfortunately, the female characters all sport gender markers such as eyelashes and red lips and several fall into stereotypical roles, such as stewardesses and lounge singers. Absent these characteristics, the NPC witnesses and informants are presumably all male. Still, the franchise’s inclusiveness shows up in other ways, such as the presence of women on the lists of astronomers and authors.
And then there’s Carmen herself. While her original incarnation was a green-eyed, auburn-haired spy from Monaco, she quickly took on her iconic appearance, which is more clearly Hispanic. A crime boss might seem like an unlikely role for a positive example of representation, but as The Mary Sue points out, she’s an educated, successful leader, a rare role for a Latina. Her nonviolent brand of thievery, inspired by the love of the chase rather than desire for acquisition, makes her closely allied with the (invariably white and male) hero-thief archetype. She’s cool, clever, and collected. Plus she has great fashion sense.
The Carmen Sandiego games do raise their share of unanswered questions. Such as: Is ACME maybe not that competent?
But overall, they were great games, and their deliberate use of representation gave them a feeling of inclusiveness that made them equally appealing to girls and boys of all backgrounds.
And we may have even learned some geography.
*Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventurer Person
All screencaps taken by me.
I’ve participated in three Twitter pitch contests (#PitMad September 2014, #PitMad December 2014, and #PitchMAS December 2014) with my manuscript, Among the Red Stars, and between them, I racked up 24 favorites from agents and editors, so here I am to spill my secrets. How can you “machine” your Twitter pitch to make it more successful. What factors can you control to improve your chances, and what factors don’t matter?
To slake my need for sincerity, I’ve finally seen Angels in America. I am so done with cynicism. We need more media that isn’t afraid to be open and honest, which is to say, we need more media like Angels in America. This post is not a review because there is no need for me to add my voice to the critical and audience consensus that it is amazing. So instead, this is simply a collection of reactions. Spoilers follow, but seriously, just go see it.
As a writer, Angels in America scares me. It scares me because the absolute best writing sits on that raw edge of emotional intimacy, an edge which I am afraid to approach for fear of revealing something too personal about myself and for fear of looking ridiculous. Angels in America walks that edge without hesitation.
And what strikes me is how essential it is for a masterpiece like this to hit the intersection of great writing and great acting. The writing is beautiful, but in the wrong hands it could easily become silly and campy for the very same reasons it’s good: Because it’s so utterly sincere and because it never keeps anything at arm’s length. But the uniformly talented cast keeps it together, pulling you constantly into the emotions of the moment so that, even in the play’s exaggerated fantasy sequences, you never have a chance to wonder if what’s happening onscreen (or onstage) is a little bit goofy.
No wonder actors love this play: It’s full of monologues. Monologues have fallen out of fashion as media has moved towards realism, because they’re not a realistic type of speech. But adhering to strict verity in dialogue does a work a disservice, because the point of fictional media — books, movies, and plays — is not realism. It’s truth. And, as every fiction writer knows, truth and reality are not the same thing. Angels in America, with its six-hour runtime, gives its characters ample time to explore and elaborate on ideas in ways that ordinary dialogue does not allow.
This dichotomy between truth and reality also plays out within the story. Prior struggles with the fear that he’s losing his mind as he tries to figure out if his visions are real or imaginary, but in the end, he finds his peace not by addressing the reality of the message, but by addressing its truth. We never do find out if the angels are real or not, because that isn’t the point.
If Angels in America has a flaw, it’s being a product of its time (the late 80’s to early 90’s) and of its movement (the gay rights movement). Which is to say, it’s pretty heavy on the white guys. Harper is well-developed, but Hannah, the only other important female character, is primarily part of Joe’s and Prior’s stories, and I can’t help noticing that Belize, the only character of color, is also the only male character who doesn’t have an arc. Still, topics like race and especially religion are handled well and the play is sensitive to all its characters.
And it’s about the only play I’ve ever seen, certainly the only miniseries I’ve ever seen, that ends with a benediction.
One last observation: Louis is a jerk. I hate that brand of self-flagellation where your own failure to be a decent person becomes the reason you think you deserve pity. Prior is right not to take him back. (It’s interesting — and refreshing — that a story with such prominent themes of love and hope ends with everyone single.)
Among the cliches that often turn up on lists of novel openings to avoid is the car ride. I don’t know about you, but speaking as a reader, that isn’t something I would have guessed. It’s neither as overdone as the waking up scene nor as obviously stupid as the looking in a mirror scene. There are, however, good reasons to avoid it. Let’s have a look.
An obvious first point: There’s nothing about cars, per se, that makes for bad openings. So let’s expand the rule to include similar types of scenes:
- Flying on an airplane
- Walking to school
- Moving to a new house/apartment/dorm
Collectively, we’ll call these travel scenes. The most obvious reason these should be avoided is because they’re banal and uninteresting, but that’s not really much of an argument; the slice of life genre concerns itself with the mundane and can be fascinating. So there’s more going on.
Let’s expand further by returning to our old friend, the waking up scene. What category encompasses both it and the travel scene? Simple enough: They’re both transitions from one state to another. We can now formalize the original rule as follows: Don’t begin a story by transitioning from one place our state of being to another. And we can consider why.
One problem with transition openings is the lack of stakes. Not only are these scenes mundane, but we know how they’re going to end, and in many cases, such as the airplane flight, it’s a captive environment. What’s our investment in an opening where a character is driving to work? Are we worried zie won’t make it? The actual story can’t begin until the protagonist gets to the end state. (This illuminates some exceptions to the rule: A kidnapping scene, for instance, could be a car ride with very high stakes.)
The other problem with transition openings is slightly more subtle. It’s that the opening is wasted establishing something that isn’t going to be used in the story. Take the moving scene. If the protagonist leaves zir home in the first chapter and doesn’t return, any time spent describing the home is basically wasted*. Consider the notorious opening dream scene. It has the exact same problem: Whatever is described in the dream sequence immediately becomes pointless when the character wakes up and the actual setting must be described all over again.
So there you have some of the reasons why a car ride makes a bad opening. Cars are not the problem. Lack of meaningful stakes and establishing a scene that will then be immediately abandoned are the problem, and both of those are things that you should avoid in your opening, regardless of whether it begins in a car or not.
*Purists are going to point out that there are reasons to describe a location other than because you’re going to spend time there; for instance, describing someone’s room tells you about zir personality. True, but that’s a low-value use of precious words in the opening, where every word counts.
Image from Spirited Away.
Battleship Potemkin aside, the Soviet Union has not gone down in history as a great creator of culture. The Western perception is generally that the USSR couldn’t produce great movies because its cinema was part of the state-run media and therefore it could only produce propaganda. To determine whether this is true, we must address two separate questions. First, did the Soviet cinema only produce propaganda? And second, is propaganda inherently not artistic?
The answer is no on both counts. The second question is easy: There are countless works that are undeniably propaganda and also undeniably great art. Virgil’s Aeneid, for instance, was commissioned by an autocrat to legitimize his reign, yet it’s a masterpiece. And Potemkin itself contains the famous Odessa Steps sequence.
The more interesting question is whether the USSR produced any cinema that wasn’t propaganda. It’s true that, especially in the early Soviet Union, the state kept the cinema on a tight leash and often produced propaganda of the most heavy-handed, creatively bankrupt kind, like this clip from the 1924 science fiction film, Aelita, Queen of Mars.
But at the end of the day, states don’t create films. People do. There are always auteurs willing to subvert or work around the rules in order to create art. Hollywood, for instance, produced plenty of great films in the 40s and 50s, despite laboring under the onerous Hays Code.
Auteurs in the Soviet Union and its satellite states also had their own opinions–often going against the party line–and expressed them through film. Czech puppeteer Jiří Trnka created the short masterpiece Ruka (The Hand), an anti-statist work with the unusual distinction of being banned in both the USSR and America.
But there’s an even simpler reason why the Soviet Union could indeed produce great movies: Even in the most oppressive atmosphere, not every independently conceptualized, creative idea will fall outside the acceptable. Working within the rules doesn’t mean being defined by them. Thus there are films from the Soviet Union that are neither pro-Soviet propaganda nor controversial enough to run afoul of the censors, not because they are mealy-mouthed and meaningless but because they explore simple, universal ideas, ideas found in art across all cultures.
I leave you with a beautiful example: Yuriy Norshteyn‘s Hedgehog in the Fog.
Disney’s 75-year canon is so cohesive that sometimes it’s hard to remember that these various films were made decades apart in drastically different social environments. Both the culture as a whole and cinematic culture in particular underwent major changes during this time, which Disney films manage to reflect while still maintaining the essential DNA that marks them as part of the same family.
One of these changes was the evolution of title sequences. In Disney’s early days, when title sequences were necessary to display the film’s credits, took their inspiration from theatrical overtures. They had no animation, but were lavishly painted with still images representative of the film’s themes, accompanied by bold orchestral music. The credits of Dumbo (1941), for example, use bright colors and bold fonts to evoke circus playbills. The music is inspired by a circus organ.
There was plenty of room for variation within this formula. Bambi (1942) features only muted silhouettes of leaves, accompanied by a gentle love song that makes heavy use of strings. Long before the advent of the Disney pop star, in this era the studio’s songs took their inspiration from opera and choral music.
This style of title sequence would be used for 20 years, all the way through the last of the Golden Age films, Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Between 1959 and 1961, Disney underwent a major shakeup. Nearly bankrupted by Sleeping Beauty and being weaned off its reliance on Walt Disney himself, it was forced to slash budgets and explore new approaches in order to remain relevant and in the black. Watch how these changes are reflected in the drastically different title sequence of the studio’s next film, 101 Dalmatians (1961).
Animation appears in the credits for the first time, mostly animated text and abstract shapes. Gone are the full-color painted title cards. The art in this title sequence is far simpler, making sparing use of color. Gone, too, is the orchestral/choral soundtrack, replaced with a much looser jazz piece in keeping with the visuals. This sequence is also half again as long as those of earlier films.
None of this is a slight: This may be Disney’s finest title sequence. Notice the careful composition of each shot and the creative use of dalmatian spots as design elements. The music punctuates each beat of the animation. Every part of the sequence underscores what role is being listed: Typewritten text for the writers, character animation tests for the animators, and so on, moving gradually from pure abstraction into more and more realistic scenes before transitioning smoothly into the film itself.
Simplified character animation from the film would remain the most common title sequence style for the next 20 years, but there were many exceptions. The Sword in the Stone (1963), for instance, is a throwback to Golden Age credits, while The Jungle Book (1967) pans across jungle scenes, using rich, liquid colors and prominent use of shadow to set a scene that’s mysterious and a little threatening. The use of the depth-of-field camera marks this as animated, rather than still, footage.
The artistry of 101 Dalmatians did not endure. As the studio’s decline continued, title sequences were an obvious place to skimp. The opening credits of The Aristocats (1970), for instance, use nothing but animated linework recycled from the film.
The Rescuers (1977) is another throwback title sequence that uses painted stills and an orchestral soundtrack. It is distinguishable from a Golden Age sequence only by its use of zooms and pans. However, it’s unique in another way: It’s the first Disney film ever to feature an animated scene before the title sequence. Before this, the film’s actual content always began after the opening credits.
Another major change in cinema took place around this time: The universal use of closing credits. Before the 1970s, most films did not use closing credits, making the title sequence essential. But with the advent of closing credits, title sequences became optional. The only information that needed to be conveyed at the beginning of the film was the title itself.
Animated prologues became common and quickly eclipsed title sequences in importance. A new type of title sequence emerged in response: The fully-animated sequence. These scenes use the same style as the rest of the film; they differ only in containing minimal activity and no dialogue. For the first time, the title sequence contained content that was part of the story, as in The Fox and the Hound (1981).
This was the death knell of Disney title sequences as an art form. Instead of thematically setting the scene, title sequences now had to literally set the scene, and there was very little room for creativity and innovation. However, it’s possible to have an artistic fully-animated title sequence, as demonstrated in The Rescuers Down Under (1990). This short, intense sequence is not part of the story, but instead sets the tone through its music and use of shape, space, and motion.
Fully-animated title sequences continued to appear for the next decade or so, but during the Disney Renaissance, films began to ditch opening credits altogether. Mulan (1998) has a gorgeous animated ink wash title sequence where what initially appears to be an M turns out to be a picture of a mountain, but it’s a scant 40 seconds long.
Title sequences had all but vanished by the 2000s. The last example I can find is Lilo and Stitch (2002), a film which returned to many classic techniques that Disney had otherwise abandoned. This well-executed sequence combines both story content and thematic shots of fish, dolphins, and waves.
The age of the title sequence is over. But in the past decade, a new form of credit sequence has emerged: The closing credit sequence. This sequence appears before the actual credit roll and lists all the people who would have been mentioned in the opening credits. Since it’s necessary to visually distinguish this sequence from the credit roll — and to keep the interest of an audience that’s ready to leave — these scenes have become fertile ground for artistic experimentation. Elements from all the previous eras’ title sequences can be found in Disney’s modern closing credits, plus modern innovations.
The closing credit sequence from Bolt (2008) is typical. The simple cel animation contrasts with the CG of the film, yet fits thematically. It features content involving the main characters, but it’s not part of the story; rather it’s supplemental material that enhances a story that’s still complete without it.
It’s fun to see credits once again being used creatively. Will closing credits stick around? Will title sequences make a comeback? I don’t know, but whatever happens, we will have Disney films to chronicle the journey.
[Trigger warning for discussion of rape and sexual violence. Spoiler warning for Garth Ennis’ Battlefields Vol. 1.]
One key decision I made while writing Among the Red Stars was the choice not to have any of the characters experience sexual violence. Some people may be puzzled by this choice; after all, isn’t rape a common war crime committed against enemy women in many armed conflicts, and weren’t the Night Witches, in combat against the Nazis, particularly vulnerable?
I’m not a historian and I won’t deny that many atrocities took place on the Eastern Front, but the women of Aviation Group 122 make virtually no references to sexual violence. (If you need a brief explanation of who these women were, go here.) One of the only mentions comes from Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, who wasn’t a Night Witch but the commander of a mixed-gender attack squadron:
I don’t know if I lost consciousness, but when I opened my eyes there was a fascist standing over me with his boot on my chest. I was seriously injured: I had a broken spine, head injuries, broken arms, and a broken leg. I was burned on my knees, legs, and feet, and the skin was torn on my neck. I remember the face of the fascist; I was very afraid that I would be tortured or raped. (Anne Noggle, A Dance with Death 224)
Timofeyeva-Yegorova only mentions the fear of being raped, which implies that it didn’t actually happen to her. It’s possible that the women simply chose not to mention the sexual violence that took place, although, as the above quote shows, they didn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of physical violence and injury. But rape clearly wasn’t a ubiquitous part of the Night Witch experience. Most of them never even met enemy combatants face to face.
But it isn’t purely a question of historicity. Thematically, how does the inclusion of a rape scene affect this kind of story? What message does it send?
One of the few English-language fictional representations of the Night Witches is Garth Ennis’ graphic novel Battlefields: The Night Witches. Despite its gorgeous illustrations and solid writing, I found myself not liking it. Partly this was because I’ve read so much about the topic that I’m now impossible to please, but another major reason was the prominent role of rape in the storyline. One Night Witch gets gang-raped and murdered by the Nazis, two more shoot themselves to escape the same fate, and a fourth is rescued by another Wehrmacht soldier, all in one short volume that only manages to give two airwomen names.
Rape, a gendered threat, thus replaces death as the primary danger these women face (only one airwoman is actually killed in combat). This framing emphasizes women’s unique weakness. Sexual violence, of course, can and does happen to men during wartime as well, but neither Battlefields nor war fiction in general acknowledges this. Thus, the focus subtlely shifts off of women as strong and heroic and onto women as weak and vulnerable. These women aren’t defying death, they’re avoiding rape. The reader’s implicit reaction isn’t “Those total badasses,” it’s “Those poor things.”
We do need stories that tackle real-world problems like rape. But we also need stories where women are allowed to be brave and tough and adventurous without the specter of gender-specific violence constantly hanging over them. Among the Red Stars is about real-life heroes and I intend to portray them as exactly that: Not victims, not “poor things,” but heroes.
PO-2 illustration by me. Photo of Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova found here.
Today I’m going to discuss a real writing problem I’ve run into for which I have no solution.
Filler is bad. This I trust to be a universally recognized fact. What exactly constitutes filler is up for debate; it’s easy enough to define it as “anything that isn’t content,” but that just shifts the question to what exactly constitutes content. The old chestnut that content advances the plot or builds character strikes me as too limited. Vivid descriptions neither advance the plot nor build character, yet they are essential; strengthening the themes of the story (say, through a parallel side plot) is another kind of content. But we all know filler when we see it: Those dull passages where people you don’t care about do things you don’t care about.
Common wisdom states that filler should always be removed; a good story is composed entirely of content. I believe common wisdom is right, but there’s an equal and opposite problem: If every scene in a novel is important, it can start to feel like too much. The reader might be overwhelmed and unable to keep track of the plot if zie is constantly faced with one thing after another without any downtime, and the whole thing may feel too rushed. But how can you slow it down without adding filler?
Most of the possible solutions are not really solutions at all.
- Add subplots: If the problem is that the main plot advances too fast and if the overall story isn’t too long, a subplot can be a great breather. Make it something lighter in tone than the rest of the story and without high stakes or too much complexity. But if your novel is already on the long side — or if an excess of complex subplots is the problem — then that’s not a good answer.
- Remove subplots: The inverse solution. This is a good idea if your novel is too long and too full of convoluted plot threads for anyone to keep track of, and most of the time it falls under the “no filler” rule as you prune subplots that don’t actually contribute to the overall narrative. But what if the story is neither too long nor too short? What if all the material that’s in there is good, but it simply happens too fast?
- Rearrange scenes: If there are particular important scenes that are getting lost, taking a close look at your organization may help. Space out those important scenes, especially side plot scenes that may not obviously tie in with the main story, in between slower-paced, less important scenes. But reorganizing is no help if many scenes are getting lost or if there are no less important scenes to juxtapose them with.
- Add description: I feel the need to mention this one for completeness. Sometimes a novel may be paced too fast because it’s too terse. Descriptions serve an important pacing purpose by preventing the plot from reading like an outline, and they also work as a moment of downtime because they rarely contain essential information. But there’s a limit to how much description you can include without sounding like Bulwer-Lytton. So, again, this only helps if your story was too short and description-light to begin with.
Do you have any other suggestions for how to slow the pacing of a novel without adding filler?