It seems like there’s a cadre of filmmakers out there scrambling not only to adapt the ancient Graeco-Roman world to film, but to do it as poorly as possible. If you’re watching these films, and I’ve seen my fair share, then common patterns, tropes and visual elements are expected. I’m not exactly sure where all this began, but my suspicion is was with Troy, the 2004 Brad Pitt vehicle which provided a fanciful vision of antiquity’s “world war.” Later the same year, Oliver Stone’s plodding epic Alexander descended on theaters. It was intended to be a more “authentic” depiction of antiquity, a claim which wasn’t borne out by the director’s numerous liberties with the life story of one of history’s most famous men.
But if these two moviegoing events proved anything, it was that audiences did not require literary or historical authenticity as long as movies about the ancient world were appropriately ramped up for modern movie-goers who seem to often mistake pandemonium for true drama.y the mid-2000s, our collective image of the Graeco-Roman universe had become even more skewed. Zack Snyder’s 300 provided an indelible visual palette which has been emulated ad nauseam ever since. A dark, lifeless landscape set beneath perpetually stormy sky is the Greece most American movie-goers now expect – a far cry from the thick forests, grassy steppes and wide sandy beaches of the real country.
Similarly, the actors playing Greeks seem to be cast more for their abs and ability to bellow than anything else. They battle each other in flying, wire-assisted leaps, slashing open necks with a font of slow-motion blood set to pounding electronica music. They fight hard and love harder, as the laughable who-gets-to-be-on-top sex brawl between Themistocles and Artemisia demonstrates in the recent 300: Rise of an Empire. And yet, for all the blood and rape, paranoid Hollywood producers still see the need tweak many basic facts about ancient culture, presumably to make it more relatable to modern Americans. The ancient Greek’s tolerant views on sexuality are often toned down or invisible – which is why Patrocles was Achilles’s “cousin” in Troy and Hephastion was little more than Alexander’s “general” in Alexander. Likewise, Greek conflicts with foreign powers have begun to look a lot like modern geopolitical conflicts, particularly where people from the Near East are concerned. This is perhaps no more obvious than in the Persian aqua-suicide-terrorists scene from Rise of an Empire. Last year’s Pompeii tapped into our collective fear of natural disaster in an era of expanding climate change. On the other side of things, films like Clash of the Titans and its sequel made no pretense at being culturally relevant… or relevant at all. In some ways, I enjoy them more because these films aren’t trying to be anything but what they are – 90 minutes of visual pablum.
It’s official. The editors are done with my new manuscript, The Men in the Trees (TMITT), and it’s headed off to production for an October release date. Like most books, TMITT was a labor which spanned several years. Fortunately, the publication of His Life Abiding (HLA) last spring provided me with some useful insights when it came to completing book number 2. So I’m sharing the five biggest things I’ve learned through the publication of the first book which helped me make TMITT a much stronger novel — I hope!
Additional information on TMITT will be forthcoming soon, so watch this website or follow me on social media for updates.
Know — and approach — your audience.
It would be much harder writing for young adults if I didn’t know any. Fortunately, I raised several of them and have many more who are personal friends. And I pick these young peoples’ brains a lot. Not only do some of them read my manuscripts in draft form, but I also ask them specific questions about how they approach situations, speak to their peers and think about the world. It’s not enough just to draw on my own experiences as a teenager (which are now several decades out of date), but to know how contemporary teens approach life – and literature. Regardless of what audience you write for, do yourself a favor and find someone within your chosen demographic to read your work before it’s finalized.
Don’t assume you can “write” a new character type correctly the first time.
TMITT was particularly challenging to write because it has a female protagonist and it can be inherently hard for men to write women and vice versa. To help with this challenge, I made sure I had multiple women (including teenage girls) read the book. It was an interesting process, because my male editors sometimes pressed me to make the female protagonist behave in a more masculine way. To a person, the female editors disagreed with this advice. In the end, I chose to listen more to the women’s advice because they were, after all, the experts. I wanted to be particularly careful here because I don't like how young women are sometimes portrayed in YA fiction as vapid, boy-crazy morons. I wanted a protagonist who reminded me of the young women and know and admire – intelligent, clever, kind, but still prone to making mistakes or having lapses in judgment. I think this advice is applicable to any writer whose approaching a character decidedly different from themselves, whether that's based on ethnicity, culture, lifestyle or belief system. You run the risk of making your character a parody or a stereotype if you don't do a little research first, and then try to be truthful in your depiction.
I totally get it when authors say “I have to be in the mood to write.” Creativity cannot be forced, but it can be coaxed. If you aren’t disciplined about your writing, nothing will get done. If you don’t believe me, think of all the people you know who say they want to write a book and compare it to how many actually do. Writing is very hard work, and like anything hard you’ll do in your life, it requires discipline and sacrifice. Granted, you may not feel inspired to kick out a brilliant new chapter every night, so I’d recommend having different projects you can alternate between. Don’t feel like writing a new chapter? Work on your agent queries instead. Sick of working on your book? Start that short story you’ve been putting off. You can break up your work load without sacrificing productivity. By being more disciplined, I was able to complete TMITT in half the time it took me to write HLA. And I hope to have the first draft of my third book, My Summer (with Robots), done by the end of this year!
The best writing occurs after the first draft.
Writers can be a temperamental lot, often in love with their own craft and reluctant to make changes. Years ago I had a friend who would froth at the mouth if anyone suggested changes to his work. In his mind, his first draft was perfection — but really this conceit was just the expression of an insecure artist wh preferred to send out a manuscript riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, misstatements and other nonsense than except his own fallibility. Over time, I’ve found my writing improves as it moves from one draft to another. TMITT went through seven drafts in all, and in some ways changed dramatically. If you accept that change can be good, you’ll be more open to improving your work rather than just defending it.
Agents and editors can be wrong.
It makes good sense to listen to the advice of those who are reading and evaluating your manuscript, especially if they are experienced and thoughtful in their criticism. But there’s still a point when you have to dig in your heels and say “no.” I had an agent who read HLA early on and wanted changes. I spent six weeks making the alterations he asked for and, though he acknowledged liking the book even more afterward, still refused to represent me. This experience underscored how all critics, professional and otherwise, have preconceived notions of where they want a story to go which are heavily influenced by their own tastes. The really good editors will provide you with feedback based on how they anticipate your book’s intended audience will react to the work, but it can be difficult to find these people. Whatever feedback you get, no matter how well intentioned, it may not jive with your vision or help you sell your title. Whenever I write anything for publication, I never have fewer than three people read it first and provide feedback. But at the end of the day, it still has to be my decision as to what words are on those pages.
Related Features: Walking for the Sake of Writing | The Writer's Work Space | Has Young Adult Fiction Become Utterly Formulaic?