Friday, August 8, 2014

Lessons from Anime: Baccano and Elfen Lied

This is a new segment I’m doing about lessons I’ve learned about writing from watching anime. I have a lot of influences on my writing but I’ve come to realize that some of my greatest influences are my favorite Japanese cartoons, more so than American fare. There’s something about the tropes and characters of Anime. They can get away with a lot more. Take more risks. And they have a lot of zany plot lines that would never fly in American TV shows. I like them for their creativity and they can teach a lot of things about pacing, tone and character.

In this case I want to talk about violence and tone. Violence is one of the more accepted pieces of shock value in America. As a result, it seems we’re rather desensitized to it. Violence is sometimes handled in an interesting way or used for commentary. Other times, blood and gore is used for horror and shock value. One of these methods is more effective than the other, as shown by these two very juxtaposed shows.

Elfen Lied, a show about young mutant girls known as dicolnyus, cursed with horns on their heads and invisible arms that can tear through just about anything. The show is presented as horror and tries to shock and scare with great fountains of blood.
This picture looks pleasant doesn't it? It is a lie.
And there is a lot of blood. Rivers worth. So much that it completely desensitizes you to the death of humans and loses the effect it is intended to have. It is a horror anime that fails at horror because it assumes that gore is somehow scary no matter how many times you show it (It also has nudity and other creepy, sexist things by the truckload but that's something for another time).

Then there’s a little anime called Baccano, an action anime set in the great depression era.
Look at that beautiful cover :)
It’s about a lot of things, including but not limited to: turf wars between mafia families, alchemy and the people it happened to make immortal, an assassin called the Rail Tracer and a mute, knife wielding girl he falls in love with, a crazy guy named Ladd Russo who really just wants to have fun (and by that I mean murder), a newspaper that takes their job very seriously (seriously enough to keep guns in the office), a group of bomb makers led by an adorable wimp named Jacuizzi (No, really) and two thieves who are notoriously bad at stealing but who have enough heart and laughs to get them through. This is a packed story told over three different timelines. And there happens to be a lot of blood. The show seems to have an odd obsession with de-fingerings in particular.

It also has this cutey :) Never drop the fedora, Firo

But what makes Baccano better than Elfen Lied? It’s not trying to shock you. The feeling I get while watching Baccano is like that of a kid watching Saturday Morning cartoons. It’s loud, it’s fun, and it’s completely insane. It’s bloody, but that doesn’t matter. You’re not watching for the blood. If it was just a bunch of shocking deaths, no one would care. You’re watching because the characters are hilarious and interesting and you want to know what happens to them. It also has an awesome, jazzy soundtrack.

And that right there is the kicker. Shock value alone cannot carry a story because eventually it stops being shocking. If you don’t have a strong plot and a likable cast of characters, you have nothing. That’s the lesson I take away from these animes. No matter the level of blood, it’s the characters that shed it who count.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Of Young Writers, Fantasy and Alien Babies.

Greetings internet!

I have returned from my long slumber, at long last. For those of you who didn't know, I was basically away from the internet for most of July. Why? Well the first ten days I was on a cruise with my family in Alaska (Which was amazing. Don't worry, I'll have a separate post for that). But the day after I got back I packed up again and headed off to Shared Worlds Creative Writing Camp in South Carolina. Its a creative writing camp for young writers from ages 13 to 17. For three years, I was a camper. This year, I came back as a Residential Assistant.

A little background on this camp. When I was a young lass, only fifteen years old, I was still an obsessive writer. But I didn't know a lot of people who shared my passions. To remedy this problem, my mother searched high and low for a creative writing camp that might inspire me. She found Shared Worlds, a fantasy writing camp where campers band together to create their own worlds and write stories within them over the course of two weeks.

This sounded like heaven to a young Aimee. A safe haven full of other geeks and writers? Sign me up! I got there and it was everything I expected it to be and more. I made so many friends and met and interacted with a ton of amazing writers in the fantasy genre. Not least among them was Jeff Vandermeer, one of the founders of Shared Worlds. You might have heard of his books. I mean, Stephen King tweeted about ANNIHILATION, the first book of his 'Southern Reach Trilogy'. Which is awesome.

I got fantastic feedback on my writing while I was at this camp, and after my first year, I returned twice more before I became too old to go back. It was a sad day. Because I can safely say Shared Worlds changed my life. Without it, I never would have written HOUR OF MISCHIEF, the book that got me my agent. That combined with all the amazing experiences I gathered and people I met made those two weeks I spent at Shared Worlds for three years some of the best of my life.

And this year, I returned as an employee of the camp. I was able to work with and interact with the kids. I had the joy of seeing them light up when they talked about the worlds they were building. On our trips to the Hub City book store, I got to shove books in their faces and insist they buy them. And in most cases they did because these kids consume books like air. Some nights in the common room, they sat around me eagerly asking questions about the publishing industry and my own journey. These are kids who love to write and want desperately to get better.

One of the best parts of the week came on the last Friday. We had a huge stockpile of books donated to us by various publishing houses. When I went to Shared Worlds we didn't have a lot of donations and most of the books weren't very interesting. This year we had tons of books. Tons of good books too and ARCs! We stacked all of the books (over 300 of them) on two tables at the bottom of the theater where we met. The fifty seven children, all jumping in their seats, eagerly awaited the buffet of words. Row by row we let them run up to the front and pick three books--just three--in a span of three minutes. They got to do this twice. Every kid got at least six free books and it was AWESOME. Who cares that they had no way to fit them all in their suitcases? They found a way! Young readers like that always find a way.

It occurred to me, watching them, that this is why I write. For the reader that comes along and snatches a book to their chest as if its a priceless treasure. For a reader that has their friend hide a book they are eyeing under a stack of other books so that no one else will take it before they get the chance. For the reader who sits late into the night, falling in love with paper and ink.

I write for myself first. Because I love it. But in the back of mind, there has always been a dream. I have always dreamed that one day, my books will be in the hands of a teenager who can't stop grinning as they walk to the check out line of Barnes and Noble. I have always hoped that one day, someone might read my books late into the night. I've always wanted to use writing to make people laugh. To make people cry. To make them fall in love.

To make them feel.

This is why I write. And the campers at Shared Worlds reminded me of that. They are all budding authors and I hope one day their query letters will flood the inbox of my agent and of other agents. I'll be cheering them on.

Thanks to all the amazing authors and organizers at Shared Worlds and to the campers for being so awesome. And if you know a young writer who loves fantasy, TELL THEM ABOUT SHARED WORLDS. Do it. Like right now. It might be one of the best things that has ever happened to them.

That's what it was to me. That's what it still is and will continue to be for years to come.