Buffy Turns 20: What BtVS and Joss Taught Me About Writing

 

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Just a portion of my Buffy Bookcase

Twenty years ago today, my then-boyfriend/now-husband Ismael tried to get me to watch the first episode of a new show premiering on= the struggling WB network called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I rolled my eyes at him. He had strange taste in television and, while I loved vampires, I had never felt compelled to see the movie. I just had no interest in it. Even after that day, Ismael kept pushing. No, the series was really good. It took him by surprise. It would take me until a year later to try an episode. That episode would be the two-parter, Surprise and Innocence, more popularly known as the episode where Buffy and Angel make love and Angel turns evil. I am not being hyperbolic–I wasn’t the same person after that. Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed my life, it changed how I saw myself and who I was as a person. It motivated me and informed who I am as an artist.

 

So, as a love letter to a series I can still recite the dialogue for, I’m going to discuss the top ways Buffy changed my writing and my life. Note – Spoilers ABOUND. If you haven’t watched…just watch the show. Seriously?

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  1. Lexicons Change…Muchly. The sarcasm. The snark. The strange turn of words. I still refer to people as bitca. I’ll add ish to turn verbs into adjectives and age to nouns to make them verbs. If there’s something to be said, I’ll ‘pop culture’ it up. I abbreviate words that don’t have abbreviation. I give emotions place names, like Waah Waah Land. I reorder words to sentences in odd ways. Pathetic much? Probably, but I started this show when I was fifteen and deciding who I was going to be. Was I intending to be Buffy and The Scooby Gang? Not so much. But it found its way in and I can’t help going for some serious quirkage when I’m feeling chattish. Don’t be afraid to play with language, as long as your audience can understand you.

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2. Risk-Taking Pays Off. When my boyfriend was busy bugging me about the series, he was very interested in the fact that the principal of the school was eaten in episode six. Seriously, it was his main selling point. I didn’t get it until they turned Buffy’s love interest evil in season 2…and kept him that way for the rest of the season. This show would do anything, and even when it hurt, I loved it. Joss Whedon, the series’ now well-known creator once said, “Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” And he did, solidly, for seven seasons. He disappointed us, but then he gave us great narrative reasons why our sadness was necessary. And Joss’ commitment to risk wasn’t just about risking his characters–it was about risking his reputation. He managed to craft and direct very risky episodes such as Hush, an episode with only 17 minutes of dialogue, The Body, an episode entirely about the strange and detached feeling of losing a loved one, and Once More, With Feeling, otherwise known as The Buffy Musical. All very risky, all paid off nicely. Taking creative risks with your work keeps it interesting.

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3. Happy Sadness is Okay. There are episodes of this series that make me laugh out loud and cry real tears. They make me worry for the characters, and they make me cringe in embarrassment. As a teenager, Buffy taught me that the confusion of my emotions was not strange. It was just life. Life can be twisty. As an artist, it taught me that genre isn’t a real thing in art. I mean, if you want to sell it, you need to know what genre it best fills. But when you’re writing it? Write the thing. Art is about portraying our journey in a way that makes sense to us. And our journeys aren’t romances or coming of age stories. They certainly aren’t comedies or dramas. They are all those things. Well, for some of us, they may not be a Western, but you get my point. Be free. Worry about labels later.

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4. Success Does Not Come Without Clunkers. The Puppet Show. Ted. Most of Season 7…Oops. Some of the series wasn’t spectacular. There were episodes that I can only barely stand to rewatch when I do my rewatches. Which is proof positive that not everything you do is going to land with an audience. And that’s okay. BtVS is still judged as a whole and your body of work will likely be, as well. That doesn’t mean they’re all bad. Some really good lines from the series come from The Puppet Show, Season 7 led up to a spectacular ending, and Ted…well…Ted had John Ritter! So, even your missteps can yield positive results.

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5. POV is Important. The Zeppo follows sidekick Xander through a day in which he stumbles blindly through a relatively minor issue while his friends deal with some world ending cataclysm we know nothing about. You know why? Because we’re with Xander and, frankly, he has no time for this Hellmouth thing. Superstar throws you into a world where Jonathan, a relatively minor recurring character, is suddenly a star, right down to getting placement in the title credits. In the Season 5 episode Buffy vs. Dracula, Dawn, a little sister we have never met thus far, just pops up, and we’re expected to accept it. She’s been planted there and the memories of the world has been altered to include her, but we don’t find that out until later. For now, we’re just surfing through the story, trying to figure out what is going on, and it adds a sense of mystery and foreboding we wouldn’t get if we knew everything. Point of view can make or break your story. Use wisely for best results.

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6. People CHANGE. Sometimes they change slightly, sometimes they are affected by something that completely and irrevocably alters the fabric of who they are. But the most important thing is that people evolve. I’m not who I was when I started watching Buffy. Buffy was much more mature, but also more dark inside, when she finished the series. Willow was stronger and wiser. Xander was more sober and careful. Dawn was less whiny. Giles was less up tight. Anya learned to care. Tara became confident. Angel and Spike repented for their wrongs. Faith went from tragic headcase to true hero. Cordelia became a higher being and Oz became a werewolf zen master. Your characters have to be altered when they finish their journey, or else what is the point?

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7. Know When to Hold Back. Joss Whedon and the writing team didn’t know what they were scripting when they created Earshot. In Earshot, an encounter with a demon gives Buffy mind-reading abilities, which lead to her overhearing a plot to kill all the students in her high school. It was scheduled to air in April 1999. And then, a week before the episode was to air, the Columbine High School Massacre happened. A freak moment of accidental prescience. Whedon and the network hurriedly pulled it off the airwaves because escapism isn’t fun once it isn’t escapism anymore. In that vein, artistically we should pay attention to when our work may be insensitive or cruel and be sure to yank that back. Art should not be used as a sword to harm.

A more artistic example of knowing when to hold back is evident in The Body. While the series had always been for mixing laughter and tears, for this episode, there is no laughter to be had. It is forty minutes of grueling sadness because it is so truthful, in a way that art should be truthful. Examining the emotions of the main characters after Buffy returns home to find her mother dead, The Body soars as an episode that doesn’t have half of the well-known Buffy style, because it can’t. Even vampire slaying because a numb, necessary event happening despite the main focus. Despite its sense of humor, Buffy knew when to take itself seriously.

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8. Even People You Love Can Be Unlikeable. This one, I REALLY needed in my private life. The lesson was very strongly learned through the richness of characters in the Buffy Universe. I hated every character at some point. In Season 1, when Angel is all cryptic before disappearing, Batman-style, or when Cordelia doesn’t get that Buffy is cool, even when she saves her ass. In Season 2, when Xander decides it’s cool to make the entire female population of Sunnydale fall in love with him by magic and later doesn’t bother to tell Buffy that Willow is trying to re-ensoul Angel. In Season 3, when Willow and Xander cheat on Oz and Cordelia or when Buffy lets loose with Faith. In Season 4, when Buffy seems to forget about her friends or when Riley does ANYTHING. In Season 5, when Dawn whines incessantly or when Xander tries to convince Buffy to try to love Riley even though he betrayed her. In Season 6, when Willow gets addicted to magic and lies to Tara and when Buffy plays around with being a reckless idiot. In Season 7, when Buffy keeps screwing up, then making self-righteous speeches. Make your characters human. Make them flawed. We’ll love them all the more.

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9. Make Things Relatable. So, you’re fighting a war against a hellmouth full of demons? Make it feel more like high school, so your audience can relate, since most of us…MOST of us…have never went to war against a hellmouth full of demons. Even with the craziest twists our stories take, we should never leave them out of our audience’s reach. Ground them to reality and make them that much more powerful. And speaking of powerful…

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10. Who Run The World? WEIRDOS. Nothing showed me how to let my geeker flag fly like Buffy did. As I watched the characters in the series grow more powerful, and also as I watched Joss Whedon, a self-proclaimed geek, become more successful, I truly understood that the things that kept me from fitting in are also the things that make me interesting, that make my work unique. Embrace the weirdness. You’ll be stronger for it.

Finally, I want to thank Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the cast, the crew, the writers, and Joss Whedon for creating a show that taught me so much and guided who I would become. And also, thank you to my husband, whose incessant nagging (I say this lovingly) led me to become an even bigger fan than he was. If you’re a writer and you haven’t watched this series, you need to check it out. As silly as it sounds on the surface, it truly is a television masterpiece.

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5 Tips for Making a Fantasy World Feel Real


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On planet Justine, where I write a story that involves world building, work in acquisitions where I read a ton of fantasy stories that either have or sorely need world building, edit fantasy books to make sure their world building is consistent, and read a ton of fantasy books just for fun, world building is very important to me.

What do I mean by world building? Well, when you’re creating a story, some story worlds come with a built-in structure. Those stories usually exist in our world, in current times. For stories like that in the fantasy genre, the world building usually involves what makes the story world unique from the regular world. So, the world created needs to exist in conjunction with the natural world. In my novel, The Order of the Key, my world building largely involves a questionable organization that exists off the grid, an epidemic of monsters that live in the shadows, and superhuman abilities that some human beings are able to harness. My main character joins the organization, and in doing so, becomes privy to a long history of things the rest of the world is ignorant of, as well as a hierarchy and set of expectations that do not exist outside of the select group of people she has found herself wrapped up in.

Other fantasy worlds involve the creation of something entirely from imagination, with no connection to our real world, or with connection to a past version of the real world. Some behave like Medieval England, for example. Those require a different sort of creation. The story must reveal and explain detailed landscapes of history in this completely new, unfamiliar space.

So, how do you make even the strangest, most bizarre worlds feel real?

  1. The world needs a history. This world has existed before the main character walked into it, or before this story started being told, so what have we missed? Don’t dump it all on us at once, but you should know it, and you should show us some glimpses of it when it makes sense in the story.
  2. If the world has magic or advanced science, that system and all of the ins and outs thereof must be established early enough that things don’t feel completely made up when they occur. It takes us out of the story.
  3. The reality is in the details. It takes little things to make an unreal place feel real. Like the scent of the room when someone has baked. The places where kids stash their goodies. The alley with that one leaky pipe overhead that always drips just as you’re walking under it. The mud on the hill you walk over on the way to work that always swallows the heel of your boot. These are the things that make a world tangible. You need these little things to believe.
  4. Give it an infrastructure – real worlds have economic levels. They have social levels. They have educational levels. These things feed into how your characters will interact with each other, and they often give us a point of reflection on which to understand a world.
  5. It has to feel like it could happen to the reader. This is, perhaps, the one that gets most overlooked. Whatever you put down on paper, no matter how strange or unlikely, the way your characters operate in the world needs to ring true. This means, within your world, you must follow your own rules. You can say the sky is green all you would like, but if it turns blue in the next minute for no explainable reason, you have violated your own rules – you lose credibility in that moment, and the very thing we need in our created worlds, authenticity.

What makes the imaginary worlds you encounter feel real? Let me know in the comments below.

Author Spotlight: Ross Smeltzer

For my first Author Spotlight of 2016, I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine, Ross Smeltzer, a talented Dark Fantasy writer, whose collection of novellas, The Mark of the Shadow Grove, will be the first release from Fantasy Works Publishing, available January 15th. Pre-order now at the links listed below.

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Synopsis: Daughters of the gathering dusk and students of blackest spellcraft, the women of the Schermerhorn clan are enigmas made flesh. Seers for time immemorial, they are keepers of primeval knowledge.

They are wise in the ways of the Old Religion.

And they are destroyers of men.

Do the women of the Schermerhorn clan drive the men they encounter to their destruction? Or are their actions governed by specters on the periphery of human consciousness?

The Schermerhorn women will soon learn what dwells in the oldest books and what lurks in the flickering shadows beyond the candlelight.

Excerpt:

I saw her close to the fire. I approached her. Instinct—animal’s blood—controlled my fatigued limbs and I felt no fear, though the flames blazed high and the hilltop was forlorn; the night was black as deep water . . . She turned and approached me. “There are no masters here. Only you and me,” she said.

 

PURCHASE LINKS:

Fantasy Works Publishing        |           Amazon           |           Smashwords

 

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Author Bio: Raised in Chatham, New York, a small town in the Berkshires that looks like the setting for a Washington Irving story, Ross grew up surrounded by overgrown woodlands and tumbled-down, derelict farmhouses. He grew up with an awareness that the past was omnipresent, a slyly pervasive power and a subtle influence on the present.

Ross now lives in Dallas, Texas with his patient and endlessly supportive wife, a hopelessly brainless terrier, and an alarmingly unhinged cat. Ross works as a social studies teacher but writes fiction whenever he gets a chance. Sadly, he seems capable only of crafting stories of the weirdest kind. His imagination—apparently corrupted in adolescence by Hawthorne, Bierce, Machen, Lovecraft, and assorted other misanthropes, weirdos, and purveyors of high strangeness—can only manufacture demented little yarns.

Ross’s fiction has appeared repeatedly in Bewildering Stories magazine, Quantum Fairy Tales, and Enchanted Conversation, an online fairy tale magazine.

Find Ross here:

Website: http://fantasyworkspublishing.com/ross-smeltzer.html

Twitter: @RossTellsTales

2015 Year in Review, Dancing into 2016

Hi all!

So I know I’ve been kind of absent this month, and mostly that was just me being the usual speed-of-light blur that I’m known for. Post NaNoWriMo, I had a ton of work to make up for in daily life, so I ran through that and have just now come down from the big spin. But, now that Christmas is done (Happy Holidays!), my 33rd birthday is here (Happy Birthday to me!) and 2016 is on the horizon (Happy New Year!), I always like to take a minute and look at how much things have changed in a year.

Highlights of 2015

  • IMG_2318I signed a contract for my series! So, things may be a bit delayed from my original August release, but that’s because I switched publishing companies in the middle of the process. It was a difficult but necessary decision to make, and while it set things back a little, The Order of the Key is still going strong and will be on bookshelves and hopefully chilling in your e-reader in 2016. So, stick with me. 2016 is going to be a banner year! I am also over halfway through writing Book 2, so things for the Keys and Guardians series are going well and moving right along.
  • Speaking of which, if we’re going with firsts, this is the first time I’ve ever edited a manuscript for a publisher, and it has been insane. Bang your head into the wall, pull your hair out of your head, angst-ridden crazy, but we’re about halfway through the muck, and the product has been incredible. I’m in love with what we’ve done so far, and damn…my editor is right when she’s right, you know?
  • lastcover1My husband, Ismael, signed his book series! Fans of the blog know just how invested I am in my husband’s work (we work as a team, are each other’s first editors, and brainstorm out most of our work together). Obviously, he is more excited than I am, but I am still over the moon! Soulless, Book 1 of the Soul Broker series, is in final edits and due out early in 2016. Life just got very different for both of us, as I’m sure you know.

 

  • Logan is kicking butt at First Grade and has decided he wants to be a writer too. We’re not expecting anything, but he’s pretty angry he can’t publish a book now, because Mommy and Daddy are, so why not? One day, kid. Or maybe not. You decide.
  • Once we both got picked up for series with Fantasy Works Publishing, I also took a job with them, and I’ve been having a grand time with my newfound duties. I’ve been working in acquisitions, as a content editor, and I’m about to strike out in a new branch – I will be running the soon-to-open audiobook branch of the company. So keep an eye open for that. You can get an idea of all of the wonderful things FWP has to offer at http://www.fantasyworkspublishing.com
  • Lastcover I mentioned my content editing above, and I’d like to introduce you to the book I’ve been editing. If you like horror and dark fantasy, you will love following the twists and turns of Gage Greenwood’s first novel, In the Eyes, In the Shadows. We’ve been having a great time working on his novel, he is extremely talented, and a breeze to work with. I know you all will fall in love with his book just like I did, so follow him for news on its release. You’ll be seeing it in 2016 as well.

What’s New in 2016

  • Aside from all the release dates and pending projects? Well, I’m still writing Book 2 of the Keys and Guardians series, The Lost Key, and I’m also going to try to shop out my last remaining short story, One Headlight. It’s been a busy year, and I let that one fall by the wayside. Either way, with book signings and marketing on the horizon, I have a good feeling that 2016 will have a crazier and much longer list of highlights than this year.

Alright guys, that’s what’s up with me! How is everything with you? Post below so I can get a look at what everyone has been up to and what is to come!

Genre’s Bum Rap

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Allow me to set the stage for you.  Christmas time.  I’m unwrapping a gift from my brother and his wife.  It’s a book!  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  I’m happy.  I’ve wanted to read this one for a while. And then Jon says, “Yeah, I got it because I figured it was time for you to take a break from all that sci-fi crap you read.”  Am I mad at him?  No.  It’s a brother’s job to poke fun at his little sister.  Not even a job, but a sacred duty.  And I won’t even point out that he loves “The Vampire Diaries” (I have a similar duty unto him) or that he chose Gone Girl  (which was an incredible novel that I recommend) from my wishlist which means I obviously read more than just “that sci-fi crap”.  But the comment does point to another more real problem that needs addressing.

What is really wrong with reading genre work, anyway?  Nothing.

Yes, romance, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror, etc. novels can be formulaic and cheesy, but then, isn’t that true for any kind of art when it’s done wrong?

A good romance novel pulls you along on what you already pretty much know will be a road to a happy ending and still manages to surprise you.  A good science fiction novel has a strong message about technology, the future, the other.  Fantasy, when done correctly, can deal with the meaning and implications of power.  A good horror novel can keep you jumping.  A good mystery or suspense novel still throws you for a loop no matter how many novels of its type you’ve read.

So what separates the good from the bad?

– Strong Characters.  A character with an interesting motivation.  Someone we want to follow, maybe not in a traditional way, but we have to root for them or against them with a force created by our love or hate for them.  Ho hum characters, formulaic characters just won’t do.  Plot is what draws people into a story – characters are what keep them there.

– An interesting plot.  You can have the best characters ever, but if all they do is sit and knit all day (no offense to all you knitters out there!) nobody is going to read past the first chapter. For a genre story to be good it has to have something interesting about it that makes the tale unique.  Without that, the story just becomes another one of those formula genre novels.  There is fun to be had in those as well, but if you’re looking to stand out or blaze your own trail, you need a good hook.

– A theme.  You need to have something to say and you have to want to say it loud.  Look at The Hunger Games and what it says about entertainment and excess.  Look at the Chaos Walking series (if you haven’t read this one, do it NOW) or Ender’s Game and what they say about the nature of war.  What Divergent says about the parts of us that come together to make us whole.  What the Otherworld series says about the deeper parts of our nature. I, Robot about the dangers of technology.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about the nature of humanity. Gone Girl has a lot to say about the pitfalls of marrying someone we only think we know and the ways people change under duress. They are great because they have something to say.  They weren’t merely created to fit a preordained mold.

And sometimes genre is more interesting, at least to me, for much more juvenile reasons.  Robots and monsters and cool gadgets and magic and sex and murder and badassness…and that’s kind of a fun thing to tap into.

I would like to wrap this blog up with one of the most ridiculous arguments I’ve heard against science fiction and fantasy – which is that they aren’t real.  They could never happen.  And that makes me wonder what that person is even reading fiction for?  In that case, they would probably better enjoy a biography.  Those are interesting, too, but they aren’t escapism.

For that?  Well, I’ll go back to reading my science fiction book right now.

What are your thoughts on this?  Let’s chat in the comments section below.