Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Amber Benson: Tara on Buffy The Vampire Slayer

And my point here is that Amber Benson is also a screenwriter, director, producer, webisode involved, AND an on-paper novelist too. This is a woman to study (Google her up). She has a lot to teach. So let's see if we can learn.

The last few entries I've done here have been long and full of abstract advice and arcane demands on writers to do the impossible (sometime before breakfast at least if not before coffee).

Now once again, lets get back to the practical by looking at a writer, her novel and the background she brings to the craft.

How does a writer actually WRITE? Where does the flowing poetry of images and words come from? What level of an Urban Fantasy needs poetry, or poetic justice, and where do you put the dense philosophy of the theme? Do you dare touch Religion?

Where do ideas come from and how do you organize them into fictional formats that can be understood by readers?

As I keep telling you, it's the writer's subconscious that does most of the work. And as I learned from Red Skelton and Jack Benny, the best material is stolen. The trick is to steal only from the best.

But after you've stolen your ideas from say, The Bible, or Isaac Asimov, what do you do with them?

You put them into your subconscious. You've watched me say that a lot.

Amber Benson's novel Death's Daughter is a flawless amalgam of her background, her life, and her career coming to high focus in a blazing burst of artistic freedom. It's just not so easy to see that art that comes from a well stocked and disciplined subconscious. But if you can see it, how do you do it?

I have no clue how she did it other than her public biography, but I do know how others have done it. Each person has to store stuff in their subconscious via a different mechanism. Writing (un-storing the stuff in your subconscious) is the opposite of the storing procedure, but they are related.

So HOW do you store stuff in your subconscious? How do you train your subconscious to regurgitate these marvelous classic ideas all wrapped up and organized to be just like something famous, but different.

What is the mechanism within the human mind that can achieve this feat?

If you can explain how you do it, please drop a comment on this post.

Meanwhile, I want to talk a little bit about the various ways I've seen accomplished writers do it, how I was taught, and how I find it works best for me.

This process of programming the subconscious to produce Art you can sell is a "feat" -- like an athletic feat, or like an adagio dance exhibition, a Chopin concert at Carnegie Hall, or recording a perfect operatic aria. It is a feat you must train for. And even so you might not equal or break a world record ever in your lifetime.

First you must establish a regimen in communicating with your subconscious.

The relationship between conscious and subconscious is, as I see it, best described by THE STRENGTH CARD, of the Tarot. It's usually a picture of some kind of beast (a lion or mythic creature known for ferocity) being petted and gentled (and dominated quietly) by a "defenseless" Maiden figure.

The beast represents the subconscious. The Maiden represents some part of the conscious mind -- perhaps the level of CUPS or perhaps WANDS. (or both)

There was an article recently on research into dog intelligence.


A dog may be as smart as a 2.5 year old, but the dog will be socially mature and still be only that smart.

Studies have shown that if a dog's owner is aggressive, the dog will become aggressive.

Dogs are copy-cats. (oy)

My dog learned the household routine. Even though I was never aware of how very routinely identical my daily procedures had become (I've since changed to inject variety) until my dog showed me by EXPECTING what would ordinarily come next.

Dogs recognize patterns and get disturbed if the pattern is broken.

Art is all about patterns. Poetry is about patterns. Poetic justice is all about patterns. If there isn't poetry inside your novel, the novel is missing an important ingredient because our real, normal world runs on poetry.

Dogs maybe can't "learn" in the way humans do but they can be trained, just like your toddler can be trained but not really "taught" (yet).

A toddler is not going to respond to all these magnificent abstractions I love to indulge in. The reasons for holding your hand crossing a parking lot don't mean a thing to a toddler. The statistics about toddlers killed in parking lots, the statistics about toddlers kidnapped, the stats on those maimed for life, zilch, nada, nothing.

But insist the first time, and never miss insisting on that little hand in yours, and next thing you know the 3 year old will force his hand into yours. The 5 year old - not so much - but dogs don't get to the 5 year old level (though some primates do!).

And your subconscious is about 2-3 years old, give or take. Forever.

Your subconscious doesn't CARE about all my beloved abstractions and meta-cognition and subtle value system comparisons. Subconscious is totally primal (which is why Blake Snyder kept saying make it PRIMAL).

The subconscious is where the "helpless" nightmare comes from, and why horror novels are so popular! We all have a scared little 2 year old inside somewhere who doesn't understand the world and still nurses lingering echoes of infancy's true helplessness. Adults still have some of that, which is why dark- mysterious- incomprehensible- insurmountable makes such a great movie!

So subconscious can be trained but not taught.

How do you train subconscious to produce poetry, art, music and stories complete with theme and structure?

It's that pattern recognition function built in as a survival mechanism!

Dogs have pattern recognition, even through time. (this comes after that) And people do too, on just that same very primal level where "reason" is not a factor.

That's another reason Blake Snyder was always saying get down to the PRIMAL level even a caveman could understand, before technology, before international trade, before Wall Street cartels.

Inside our sophisticated world wise behaviors, we are driven by the most primal issues of love, loyalty, reproduction, life, death, protection, possessing, command of power.

The story comes from the subconscious of the writer, and must be presented in such a way that the subconscious of the reader can recognize the pattern, the primal pattern.

Not SIMPLE pattern. PRIMAL pattern.

Life and Death are very primal, and not at all simple, but still very much what our subconscious is designed to handle magnificently.

That's why life and death are the subject of so many novels, and the stakes in so many plots. You don't have to explain what's so important about it. Using something that primal is almost a cop-out because it's so easy to grab for Life, Death, and Devil archetypes to drape your story on.

But Amber Benson has gotten away with it gracefully in HER NEW NOVEL "Death's Daughter" -

and thereby hangs the tale of a lesson in writing.

And the lesson in writing is READ.

As you train your toddler to hold your hand in a parking lot (pattern recognition triggers habitual action), so you can train your subconscious to steal IDEAS when reading a good PRIMAL novel (pattern recognition triggers habitual action).

The first step in training your subconscious is to sort your to-be-read stack into Good, Better, Best. (some of these will be re-reading projects)

You should pick writers and books that you want to emulate, or that have sales statistics you want to achieve. Most likely, the ones with the sales statistics you want to achieve will contain elements you seriously dislike or balk at. Those elements are very possibly the source of the sales statistics, so study them and reinvent them in new guises that you do like.

There are two kinds of fiction you should read to train your subconscious.

One is the really slick, highly professional, so well synthesized you can't reverse-engineer it to see how it was done.

Another is the awkward, not-quite-right, fumbling, jerky neo-pro product you most often see these days in the e-book form because Manhattan isn't publishing midlist and beginner writers as much as they used to.

That's not casting aspersions on e-books! I've reviewed a number of e-books that are better constructed than you generally find from Manhattan! The e-book has stolen from Manhattan the right to be the home of the mid-list as well as the beginner, launching what will soon be stellar careers.

Manhattan will soon be in financial trouble because they are not fostering the new beginners and will not have their loyalty (loyalty is primal, remember?)

Reading to train your subconscious to write is very different from reading to enjoy a good read.

As you start doing this exercise, your ability to enjoy any novel will falter and may disappear. If you persist, a new and very intense pleasure will emerge as you read interesting novels that also tickle your pattern-recognition nerve.

You start by reverse engineering a number of your most favorite novels until you can see their moving parts as detailed here in previous posts.

One tried and true technique is to take colored highlighters or pens and highlight or underline words, phrases and sentences. Don't do it just mentally. The physical act of marking is what communicates to the subconscious. Just thinking about it won't achieve the same communication level.

Mark DESCRIPTION, DIALOGUE, EXPOSITION, NARRATIVE in separate colors. A really top flight writer like Andre Norton will use all 4 in almost every sentence. Some words will carry both exposition and narrative in one word.


Later flipping through those pages, you'll see the proportions of words allotted to each character. It's important to get that proportion right.

Mark the BEGINNING, MIDDLE and END of each scene, and note in the margin the SITUATION CHANGE for PLOT and for STORY.

See my two entries on SCENE STRUCTURE at



And note that my "definition" of scene is echoed in this web page on stage vocabulary.

Note particularly where it says BLOCK A SCENE because we haven't discussed that yet, here, but we have covered the components of blocking. Blocking a scene is very VERY important in action narrative, and when you read DEATH'S DAUGHTER, you should watch for the techniques so smoothly and subtly applied.

Color code 2 or 3 of your favorite novels in each of the categories

1)very advanced that you want to emulate, and

2)beginner's work that you COULD emulate.

DO THE SAME THING watching television. Take a notepad, note down the scenes and how each changes the situation. Capture the plot outline as you watch. (this is where you wish you knew shorthand).

If you need to know what a "plot outline" is, I gave you a couple of examples in WHAT DOES SHE SEE IN HIM http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2009/08/what-does-she-see-in-him.html

Now, after this intense exercise, never let yourself read anything without mentally coloring in the components as DESCRIPTION, DIALOGUE, EXPOSITION, NARRATIVE, scene blocks etc. After you've done the actual coloring, subconscious will begin to spot them for you, and train your conscious not to miss them! (like the 3 year old who will insert a hand into yours crossing a parking lot)

Once subconscious has started to do that, and you can't read anything without being aware of the components, go to sleep assigning your subconscious the task of having AN IDEA when you wake up.

The first few IDEAS it produces will be like a puppy piddling in the corner. Think of the STRENGTH CARD, and remember how you tame the fractious, spoiled, savage beast of the subconscious with kindness, repetition, firmness, consistency, just as you train a toddler. Reward good behavior. Ignore the bad. Make friends.

When an idea comes pre-formulated to the pattern you are training into your subconscious, write it down (that's the reward for subconscious, getting written down). Do the plot outline for the novel, just as we've covered in these posts such as WHAT DOES SHE SEE IN HIM. With practice it shouldn't take more than half an hour, maybe 20 minutes, to jot down the outline (my examples came out as fast as I could type; it just takes practice) and they don't have to be consecutive minutes.

Let subconscious do the part that's "the same" and you do the part that's "different."

Now, where to start training?

AMBER BENSON!!! I just wrote my January 2010 column (that's another lesson in publishing - it's August and I'm late turning in the January column.) And except for a quick Noel Tyl astrology mention, the January column is all about DEATH'S DAUGHTER and why it's an "important" novel in the guise of just another Urban Fantasy.

But one little 1500 word column couldn't begin to scratch the surface of "all about" Death's Daughter. There's so much more to say. We shouldn't get to that until after you've read it and reverse engineered it.

Amber Benson's novel DEATH'S DAUGHTER is a perfectly structured, breezy-easy read targeting the most primal archetypes, Death, Devil, God, normal human woman who just wants a normal life.

The world Benson has built for this novel is soooo Buffy and sooooo Different from Buffy. The world's mechanisms, the tone, the brightness, the attitudes, the philosophy behind everything is all different from that famous TV show, but awakens soothing echoes of the Buffyverse pattern. And yes, there's the constant thrum of a Romance in there too! "What does she see in him" is handled gorgeously.

If you're familiar with the Buffyverse, you will pick this up right away. And you'll see how Benson's universe is unique. You'll also find a purely cinematic structure articulating the skeleton of this novel. And you'll find the poetry, the art, a musical rhythm to the pacing, and so many tightly and smoothly integrated patterns even I couldn't count them all.

DEATH'S DAUGHTER is a leap-for-joy FIND for the writer looking for a really tough nut to crack on reverse-engineering.

But it didn't just spring full grown out of nowhere. Here's Benson's bio from the back of the novel.

“Amber Benson cocreated, cowrote and directed the animated supernatural Web series Ghosts of Albion with Christopher Golden, which they followed with a series of novels, including Witchery and Accursed, and the novella Astray. Benson and Golden also coauthored the novella The Seven Whistlers. As an actress, she has appeared in dozens of roles in feature films, TV movies, and television series, including the fan-favorite role of Tara Maclay on three seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Benson wrote, produced, and directed the feature films Chance and Lovers, Liars and Lunatics.”

TV, Web production, feature film, print media. And all that experience is neatly, tightly integrated into DEATH'S DAUGHTER.

Christopher Golden once taught me a lot about this structure stuff, and how the subconscious needs to be disciplined to separate material into distinct stories. I don't know that's where Benson learned it, or if she came to Golden already knowing it. Or maybe she was born knowing it (some people are just talented that way).

I highly recommend making DEATH'S DAUGHTER one of your novels to reverse engineer to see what it's made of and how its moving parts are joined by the theme. Yes, it'll be as hard as if it were written by Andre Norton or A. E. Van Vogt because it's so well integrated. But your subconscious may pick up the patterning for the multi-media creation, which could make your fortune.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. I have always thought having a dog is like living with a perpetual 2-year-old, and now it's confirmed! Except that this toddler has fur, weighs 160 pounds, and can at least be left alone in the house for a few hours.

    I don't dare put on tennis shoes in sight of our St. Bernard until right before leaving the house, because he goes crazy. Tennis shoes mean "dog park." He reacts similarly when my husband picks up the little cooler bag in which he carries his drinks to the park.

  2. I truly hope there is a career path ahead for people who do what we do. But, honestly, I am not sure.