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.

My Take: Team Urban or Team Epic?

 

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Hi all,

Today is the final day of Entangled Teen’s Team Urban vs. Team Epic Fantasy Promotion, and in honor of the conversations of this week, I would like to elaborate on a statement.

Earlier this week, I clearly declared what side I was on. Now I’m going to tell you why.

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I have always loved fantasy novels of any kind. A popular theme here on the blog is that I like weird stuff. I like to read it, I like to watch it, I like to write it. So I enjoy most stories in which something out of the ordinary occurs. Fantasy was a natural interest for a person like me.

There is nothing wrong with epic fantasy. There is a beauty to the pure inventiveness, the creations of entirely new worlds, languages, people. For the early part of my childhood, I was raised on fairy tales, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. My father even had a Tolkien calendar. My favorite video game was The Legend of Zelda, and if that isn’t an epic fantasy loving gamer’s dream, no game is.

But at some point, things shifted. As I grew up, I became exposed to television series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it touched me in a way no other series, or anything else for that matter, ever had. I was absorbed, completely moved. I fell in love with these characters, saw myself in them, saw myself in their weekly trials. I tried to decide which one I was more like. It didn’t matter if they were dealing with real life troubles, the monster of the week or some deep seated evil that spanned seasons. They felt more real to me.

The reason for that is that they were grounded in my reality. I could see myself going to school and having to deal with my principal as I snuck out to fight a demon. I could see myself sacrificing my social life to devote my life to something bigger. And somehow, those metaphors for life that were present in every fantasy novel struck a chord within me. Suddenly, I saw the challenges in my world as monsters to be defeated, the lessons to be learned as my spell book.

And ever since then, I found myself leaning towards Urban Fantasy, because if Buffy was a book, that’s exactly what it would be. I still love Epic Fantasy, but not with the ferocity with which I devour stories about real people dealing with their supernatural problems in concert with real world troubles. Killing monsters while dodging police. Hiding magical abilities from their parents. Having nobody believe them about who they are. Coming to terms with the strange in such a normal society.

I’d take a thousand magical societies hidden in plain sight over a dragon flying over head any day.


Thank you for hanging out with me for Entangled Teen’s Team Urban vs. Team Epic Promotional Event! Don’t forget to enter the giveaway and check out all of the books we discussed this week!

I’ll be back next week to discuss the difference between outlining a short story and a novel. See you then!

 

Inspiration

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Inspiration is such a strange and essential force for an author, and we need to pull it from wherever we can find it. For me, inspiration can be like a patchwork quilt, a line from a song, a character from a book, a writing style, and a plot idea can come together and be woven into an original idea.

For The Order of the Key, the first seed came from watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The series was the first time I’d ever seen a television show that crossed genres, styles, and attitudes. Buffy could be funny in one episode and tragic in the next. Sometimes it was horror, sometimes it was paranormal. Sometimes it was episodic, sometimes it was arc-based. I loved the way the series mixed it up, and I saw that as a powerful way to tell a story. Life can be all of those things, and it’s fun to shine a light on that. So when I dealt with the new characters I was forming in my head, I tried not to conform them to one specific style, and let them just be people – which led to my Contemporary Fantasy, which has elements of horror, elements of comedy, elements of romance.

Now, I had never read a book that behaved the way Buffy did as a television series. And I also had fears of giving my characters flaws. I was concerned about making them far too unlikeable. And then I read The Otherworld series by Kelley Armstrong. Reading Kelley’s books gave me both the courage to build unique systems of supernatural characters and to build complex characters with gray areas. I thought I always needed the good guys to be stalwart and true or I’d risk their likeability. Ms. Armstrong soundly corrected me.

The members of the Order are all trained at an Estate that doubles as a school and a living space. If I said anything but X-Men inspired me, I’d be lying.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins inspired me to explore the harsh realities of war. The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime inspired me to take chances with the voice of the narration. My lead character, Jacklyn, has a very unique point of view, and we get the story from her. It never had the same magic when I tried to tell it third person.

I’m sure there are other things that linked together to create the idea for The Order of the Key. I can think of many times where I’d hear a turn of phrase, the lyrics of a song, or met a person that made me want to write something down. As artists, we spend our entire life fed ideas and inspiration, we internalize that, and when we’re ready to create something ourselves, these ideas mix together to create something truly unique. I hope you enjoy my unique creation.

Where do you find inspiration?

September Links

Welcome to another edition of stuff from around the web!

My husband’s birthday passed this week, so let’s all say a big happy birthday before we begin.  HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

So, what’s new on the web?  Let’s start here – my good friend Rana, who I met through Buffy-Boards.com, a Whedon themed message board, just posted a guest blog at The Happy Herbivore.  She took a challenge to go one month eating only from her pantry – which I think is crazy, but she makes it work!  Read about the adventure here.

Do you remember my discussion of revision in the blog post, Too Close for Comfort? This blog post on Positive Writer hits the nail right on the head when it comes to my feelings when revising that story.

This article says it better than I have – this is how I find time to write between a full time job and being a mommy.

This New York Times article is about one of my pet peeves, which I also share with my writer/hubby Ismael – don’t ask me what I’m writing about!  I can’t give you a well-formed answer!  It’s impossible!

An article that mixes writing, fandom, and one of my son’s favorite things?  Yes please! 

Check out this interesting new company, creating audio tales and earning money for literacy.

If you’ve ever wondered what revisions of a book feel like from start to finish, my favorite author, Kelley Armstrong, has got you covered in this fascinating play by play on her tumblr blog.  For updates to this step by step edit of book 2 of her Cainsville series, stay tuned to kelleyarmstrong.tumblr.com.  And, if you like mysteries with a bit of supernatural involved, check out the first book, Omens, which is already available for purchase.  I’m already flipping out waiting for the next installment.

Ready to start querying agents?  Here’s a collection of advice from literary agents on how to get published.

Here’s a little ditty on writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy.  The first question and answer involve something I discuss with people all the time.  Many people consider it impossible to complain that science fiction and fantasy are unrealistic, because isn’t that what they’re supposed to be?  But the truth is Sci-Fi and Fantasy can be unrealistic – if you don’t follow your own rules.  As a speculative fiction writer, you set up your own rules for your environment and you can’t later break them without a damn good reason.  Something as simple as being consistent in the rules of your world can bring realism to a novel about three-headed space goons from Snorg.  If all Snorgs are three headed, that two-headed one had better have a reason for being there that is better than, “Oh, I forgot Snorgs were supposed to be three-headed,” and it has to show.

And on that Snorg-filled note, I bid you adieu until the end of this month, when we will discuss politics and public image. See you then!

Internet with Friends! And Other Relevant Links…

Welcome to the summer of Pieces of the Puzzle!  This is a little update on what I’ve been up to and what I’ve been reading all summer long.

– I joined the July edition of CampNanoWriMo and managed to write twice my projected word count!  If you are looking to sign up for the next National Novel Writing Month, check it out, here.

– I have spoken my Urban Fantasy, Order of the Key, and my Romantic Comedy, Legally Insane, on this blog before.  The first drafts of both of these novels are now complete.  It’s time to start throwing myself into edits and start outlining my next novels!

– It’s been awhile, but I’ve written a review!  Check out my review of Man of Steel here.

– If you’re interested in following my life in picture format, follow me on Instagram. My username is @justine_manzano.

– My little sister, another writer, has started a blog.  Check it out here!

– Zoraida Cordova is a talented Young Adult writer who writes about merpeople.  She also just happens to be my friend and was once my college classmate in two writing classes.  I just finished the second book in her Vicious Deep trilogy, The Savage Blue, and it left me scrambling for more!  Check out my review for the first book of the series here.  And, seriously, READ THIS SERIES.  If you like fantasy and adventure, you’ll like this.

– Working on edits to your stories like I am?  Check out these great tips to get rid of repetitive statements.

– Here’s another great article about editing.  Check out novelist Patricia Gussin’s list of things to look for in each reread of your novel.

– One of my favorite fandom influences, Joss Whedon, discussed his top ten writing tips here.  They are mostly geared towards screenplay writing, but there is much information to be gleaned from the article.

– Getting together your fiction query letter?  I will be, very soon.  So here is a link to one that works, with a very nice analysis of why.

Okay, that’s all for this month.  Check out my next post in two weeks, where I discuss the debate of writing vs. income.  Take care all!

Come What May…

Hello all!  Welcome to my collection of news, musing and links for the month of May.

I’d like to start by leading you guys to an article that gave me a mention.  The article is about a new frontier in publishing & fandom. You can read the article here.  The SpaceGypsies site is filled with interesting fandom information, so if you have never visited it, take a tour.

Just a random thought: If every character I create is like a child to me, and having children drains you and makes you forget things, then is it any wonder that between Logan and my fiction-kids, I have very little brain power left?

Ever get your Lays and Lies mixed up?  This is a big issue of mine.  This blog post by C.S. Lakin should help.

Want to see the things you should absolutely never write in a query letter to a literary agent?  Visit SlushPile Hell and laugh with them.

Do you believe that the rules of writing and publishing others discuss don’t apply to you?  You might want to check out this Writer’s Digest article.

Joss Whedon, otherwise known as the Master of the Fandom Universe, gave a very profound commencement speech at Wesleyan University, and i09 covered it here.  Give it a read.  It’s pretty inspirational, no matter what path you’re on.

Another interesting Writer’s Digest Article discusses 15 Things a Writer Should Never Do.   Here’s a hint: One of these 15 things is actually the topic of my next blog post!  See if you can guess.

That’s all for now.  I’ll see you with a new blog post in two weeks!

March Around The Web

This blog post isn’t actually a blog post.  I’ve been considering doing something like this for awhile, but shied away from it, as it didn’t fit my general blog format.  However, with some thought, I decided that there were a ton of thoughts, ideas, and weblinks that I had that were not blog posts by themselves, but when collected could be worthy of sharing and may be helpful to some who were reading this blog.  Therefore, I have decided that I will pass these on as I create a large enough amalgam of them.  I hope you enjoy!

  • I just signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo!  Starting in April, I will be, once again, participating in a challenge to crank out 50,000 words in one month!  Sign up with me at http://www.campnanowrimo.org/.  And if you do, let me know in the comments below.
  • If you are a writer that submits work to magazines (like me), check out this very useful Writer’s Digest Article on what your cover letter should ideally look like.  And if you’re one of the people mentioned there who send their work without a name on it, SHAME ON YOU.  Seriously.
  • This quote came across my eyes sometime this month, and I wanted to share it:

    I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of.

    This was uttered by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Doctor Horrible’s Singalong Blog and THE AVENGERS fame.  Yeah, him.  Just my favorite writer saying that he writes for the exact same reason I do.  I’m not fangirl squeeing or anything.  Nothing to see here…

  • Another Writer’s Digest Goodie.  I’m currently editing the first draft of my novel and it’s driving me a little batty – which is likely why I found their 7 Deadly Sins of Self-Editing so on point.
  • In case submitting short stories to literary magazines didn’t already make me feel like I was never getting anywhere, here is an article that has the potential to make me feel worse.  Click here to understand why the slush pile is so slushy.


Well, that’s everything for this time around.  Stay tuned for next post where I teach you how to write like a fangirl…and believe me, you’ll want that more than you think.