Category: Notes (page 1 of 4)

Fear Not The Muse

Urania, Muse of Astrology

Normally, on Thursdays I use this space to geek out about something related to games. For example, I have a deck in Hearthstone that’s doing really well, I have thoughts on how important board game expansions are to a base game’s life cycle, and I want to help more people get comfortable with the somewhat daunting game of Twilight Imperium. But I can’t talk about any of that today. Last night, something happened to me that is so writerly, I just have to share it with you.

I was laying in bed last night, having trouble getting to sleep. I rolled around, trying to clear my head, but it wasn’t shutting down. There was too much noise. It took a while, but at around 2:30 am, the noise started to take shape. It was dialog. A scene. An idea.

At 2:45 I rolled out of bed and came back to my desk. I pulled out my Moleskine and started writing. It’s a rough outline, little more than the barest of bones for a story, but it got the idea out of my head enough for me to get some sleep. This morning, I’m still thinking about it. I’m turning the idea over in my head. And I likely will consider it throughout the day.

I have no idea if this story will work. It’s an extremely raw idea that could simply be unworkable. But the point is, it didn’t let me go. It grabbed my attention and I had no alternative but to deal with it before I could get any rest. This happens when you’re a writer. And the only thing to do is write the idea down.

It’s okay if you look at the idea in the light of day and say “why did I think this was good?”, since if you don’t take the moment to write the idea down, you won’t know either way. Things that seem vivid and crystal clear at night can dissolve by the light of day. But we mustn’t fear new ideas, when it comes to story or life.

We need our ideas, even the ones rude enough to keep us awake. We need to always be considering new alternatives, notions that keep us motivated, points of view we hadn’t considered. The brain, despite its composition, needs to be worked like a muscle to stay in shape. Let it atrophy or fester or dwell on the same-old same-old, and it’ll deteriorate faster than an ice cream cake at a corporate luncheon. The muse, that ephemeral and often anthropomorphised part of our minds that generates new ideas, is almost like your brain’s personal trainer. Listen to it.

There are a lot of things that can keep one awake in the dead of night. Worries over finances, anxiety about relationships, wondering if you left the gas on, and so on. New ideas are one thing that can not only be adequately dealt with, but also can lead to new patterns of thought, new creative endeavors, entire new pathways in life. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t be afraid of your muse. Let it guide you to imagine, to think, and to create.

Then give it a warm glass of milk and send it back to bed because dammit, I need sleep already.

I’m happy this morning, but I’m really, really tired.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Adventures of Robin Hood

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

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Long before things like 3-D, CGI, THX and all those other wonderful acronyms came along, films were seen as extensions of the stage. Actors brought their best Shakespearean bombast, sets were designed as you would the sort of staging you’d have to quickly break down in the dark between acts, and directors framed and propelled their shots in a particular way. If 1938’s classic swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood has a flaw, that’d probably be the biggest one. It’s also completely irrelevant, however, as this is the sort of movie where I can use the words ‘classic swashbuckler’ with an entirely straight face.

Courtesy Warner Bros

King Richard I of England is on his way back from the Crusades when he gets tied up in Austria. Literally. Some guy named Leopold takes him prisoner. Richard’s little brother John takes over and immediately starts oppressing the Saxon commoners, fattening the purses of the Norman land-holders to build up support for his bid for England’s throne. The big thorn in John’s side is the Saxon Robin, Earl of Locksley, who sees right through John’s public decrees that the increased taxes are to pay Richard’s ransom and vows to do everything in his power to stop the oppression and restore Richard to his throne. Sir Guy of Gisbourne, John’s aide de camp, makes a vow of his own, which is to see Robin dangling from the end of a rope, especially when the lovely Maid Marian starts warming to Robin’s roguish charm instead of falling for Guy’s Norman sensibilities and position. There’s plenty of sword fighting, swinging from ropes, and the sort of laughs men make by putting their hands on their hips and engaging their diaphragms.

As I said, this is a classic swashbuckler. The classic part of that comes from the Oscar-winning score and art direction, as well as the acting. The story isn’t all that original but it’s being told with such adventurous abandon and honest charm that the premise never gets in the way of the fun. Sure, the sets look a bit two-dimensional in places, the lighting isn’t always appropriate for the fictional time of day or night and there’s more than enough men in green tights on display to give Mel Brooks something to parody, but in the case of this Robin Hood it’s easy to brush all of that aside. The way in which this movie is acted, shot and presented is so rousing, colorful, lighthearted and satisfying that it could have been shot in the round against a black background and it’d still be entertaining.

Courtesy Warner Bros
“So, I heard you like venison…”

Errol Flynn in particular possesses so much charisma and wit that it’s obvious why he became the iconic Robin Hood for years. He takes a film with a setting, story and style that would normally mark it as charmingly camp, and elevates it to being just plain charming. He has chemistry with Olivia de Havilland, who manages to look glamorous even when she’s wearing some pretty ridiculous headgear. By this point they’d already worked together on two pictures, one of which being the equally iconic Captain Blood which also paired Flynn with one Basil Rathbone.

This is one of the earliest instances I can recall of seeing a main villain who keeps their hands clean while a top lieutenant does the dirty work with relish – a Big Bad and a Dragon, if you will. In Robin Hood, Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone demonstrate exactly how this dynamic should work. Rains’ Prince John is affable, magnanimous, crafty and ruthless all at the same time, and while he never becomes physically involved in the goings-on, his presence is undeniable. Rathbone’s Sir Guy, on the other hand, has little patience for posturing and politics, spending most of his time waiting for Prince John to tell him who he gets to stab next. Long before things like powered armor or automatic weapons were born, Basil Rathbone used tone, poise and expression to show audiences exactly what it means to be the biggest badass in the room.

Courtesy Warner Bros
Prince John’s “WAT.” face

There’s even a touch of a villainous Power Trio, with Melville Cooper’s somewhat rotund and cowardly Sheriff of Nottingham revealing himself to be a pretty smart guy. However, the most interesting relationship is that between Robin and Sir Guy. These are two men who are completely confident in their own abilities, are vying for the affections of the same woman and serve two entirely different masters. Underneath the story stuff, however, is the chemistry between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. It’s particularly telling in their swordplay, which segues me into the ‘swashbuckling’ portion of this ‘classic swashbuckler.’

The swordfights that happen in Robin Hood are fun to watch, with high energy and great music underscoring the tension. The movements are large and deliberate, swords clash against one another and the hero and villain exchange blows on spiral stairs, or wander out of shot for their shadows to do the dueling. This is the textbook example of well-choreographed cinematic swordplay, even if trying to engage someone in a sword fight in real life using these techniques would quickly get one skewered. It’s the kind of swordplay that makes films like the aforementioned Captain Blood, 1940’s The Sea Hawk and The Princess Bride such swashbuckling classics – and those are good examples of how these fights are staged, a method sometimes referred to as Flynning. Guess why.

Courtesy Warner Bros
“But enough talk! Have at you!”

This isn’t to say that it looks terribly fake. Outside of the occasional set or lighting error, Robin Hood looks great all around. While the costuming’s probably not terribly historically accurate, it’s quite sumptuous and atmospheric, and being shot in Technicolor, everything’s got a bit of a bright sheen on it. And while the aforementioned sword fights aren’t necessarily realistic, they don’t look bad at all, either. Hell, Basil Rathbone was an accomplished fencer as well as a great actor, and he used his skill to make sure he let Errol Flynn have a convincing win!

Whups, sorry, should’ve put a spoiler alert on that one.

Anyway, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a classic that might show its age in places, but has definitely aged gracefully. It’s exciting and fun to watch without being dumb or terribly formulaic, which is more than can be said for a lot of films being made some 70 years later. The cast is charming, the action is well done and the story, while familiar, is told with enough touches of freshness that it’s still interesting after repeated viewings. I say give it a look. If you have already seen it, I have to ask this one question: Where the hell did the phrase “lusty infant” come from?

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

Cycles, Trilogies & Other Fancy Words For ‘Series’

Good Luck

While I’m busy moving myself and my Canadian half into our swank new Lansdale pad, here are some thoughts I’ve had recently concerning what was lately called “The Project”. I’d originally planned this out as a trilogy of stories to introduce the world, build up some of its history and cultures, and do my utmost to tell a few damn good stories while I’m doing that boring stuff at the same time.

The first novel in the arc will introduce the Cities of Light, the different systems of & viewpoints on magic, and how some of the other races have gotten on since the major catastrophe that happened in that part of the world. The next major story entry would take readers across the ocean to other settlements of humans, bring out some of the religions of the world and set up the dire circumstances that cause the events of the third novel. The initial story arc concludes with a globe-trotting world-threatening race-against-time sort of deal.

Now, this may seem like a typical trilogy, but I don’t think the stories need to end with the conclusion of the third novel. Descendants may run into future problems and allegiances or outlooks may shift over time. It’ll depend mostly on how much interest is actually garnered in my writings, if any at all comes my way, but I don’t want to necessarily limit myself to just three books in this world after investing a great deal of time & energy into its creation. So it may go transmedia, more books may get written, maybe there’ll be puppet shows or something. I can’t say.

Anyway, since the first three books will have a guy named Asherian as the protagonist, I figured the titles should reflect his central role. “Citizen in the Wilds” follows Asherian as the ‘spell’ of the Cities is broken and he struggles to survive in the inhospitable world beyond the battlements that surround them. “Alchemist at Sea” will have him going over oceans for a variety of reasons. And “Ambassador at War” should be pretty self-explanatory.

This is how things will get started, if I can get the first novel off the ground. Which, considering the epiphany I had Thursday night, is actually looking more likely.

“God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.” – Robert McKee (Brian Cox), Adaptation.

Originally the first novel was going to be named “Asherian’s Journal,” with subsequent titles starting with “Asherian’s” in ending in another capitalized noun. “Hey, it works for Jacqueline Carey, right?” was my thought. Then, hearing Brian Cox bellow out the preceding, it hit me like a half-brick to the face. Asherian writing in his journal between most chapters is the prose equivalent of a voice-over. Now, the character in the film is kind of taking the piss out of the film he’s in, since there’s a lot of voice-over narration that actually works, but I took his words to heart and cut some of mine out of the novel. We should be focused on Asherian, not necessarily shifting from an observer’s perspective to lengthy bits of his internal monologue and back again. It’s flow-breaking, shoddy and shallow, bordering on self-insertion.

And it was a darling.

Papa Wendig taught us how to deal with darlings.

Courtesy Terribleminds

It was a hold-over idea from when I first started this with Asherian as my protagonist, as a way to tell the reader more about his mentality and his view of the Cities of Light. But that’s what his communication with his sister is for. She talks with him through dreams and visions, and she shapes the forum in which they speak. Right there is all the in-world excuse I need to show the Cities of Light and how these twins see them, not to mention how that view shifts as the story goes on.

So down went the journal entries with a boot in the ass, followed by the Mozambique Drill. Pop, pop. BLAM.

Hopefully with that out of the way, I can get back on track with a daily word count of a thousand or more, since I dropped my projected total words for Citizen in the Wilds to 100k. Here’s why.

Anyway, there’ll be writing happening this weekend. Maybe after we unpack a bit.

About Amateurs

Bard

The word “amateur” has a bad connotation. You might look at an art’s student attempt to recreate the Mona Lisa, or a mod for Half-Life designed to make it look like Wolfenstien 3-D, or an Uwe Boll film and say “Ew, that’s completely amateur.” By that, you’re likely to mean “poorly designed, conceived or executed, and in those cases you might be right, though I for one would give props to the mod designers for using a flexible open-source shooter engine to hearken back to those bygone days where your arsenal wasn’t limited to two weapons and your health didn’t come back automatically if you just stood around a corner making sure your shoelaces were tied.

(Okay, all right, that’s the last time I’ll rag on Halo’s gameplay, I promise. It’s really the fans’ fault I hate it so.)

The real meaning of amateur, though, is based in its direct French translation – “lover of”. An amateur is someone who does something for the sheer love of it, not necessarily for the money. Now, I want to get paid for what I do as much as this shouty beard-faced fellow, but the fact that I’m not yet isn’t going to stop me from doing it. It’s just something I need to do on my own time until I can find a way to fool the monolithic corporate world at large into believing that what I do enhances productivity or shifts paradigms or some other such bullshit.

That’s part of the reason why this isn’t getting posted until almost 4 PM, and why it’s so short. That and I do have a day job that keeps me in the category of “struggling amateur” instead of shifting me to “starving amateur.”

What’s In A Title?

Bard

So. The Project. Nice and enigmatic, but I doubt people will be flocking to Amazon to download it to their Kindles. Mrs. Alchemist keeps asking me why I haven’t given it a real title.

Honestly, it’s because I can’t pick one.

What we have here is a story with a fantasy setting. The protagonist, Asherian, comes from a magocracy of floating cities that exist behind a protective wall that is part stone, part magical whoseewhatsis. He’s an apprentice and his class takes a field trip out into the ‘Wilds’ on the other side of that wall. Let’s just say that doesn’t end well.

The idea is that his life has been somewhat cloistered up until this point, and he’s stranded and alone out in a world he’s unfamiliar with, where his use of magic might end up killing him for one reason or another. So it’s something of a hero’s-journey/fish-out-of-water deal. So what am I gonna call this thing? I’ve had a few ideas, but none of them really seem to be sticking.

Arrow of Fate

Ash’s instructor gets arrow’d which dooms the field trip. Now, this was what I originally called it back when this was a short story instead of a novel, and Ash was a chick with a different name. However, it has a few problems. Ash isn’t an archer so the title isn’t about him, arrows don’t play a huge role in the overall story, and the title in general feels kind of Harlequinesque. So I’m inclined to scrap that one.

Beyond the Wall

Since 80-90% of the story will be happening, well, beyond the wall, this one makes more sense. There’s something about it that bugs me, though. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Maybe it just feels too much like other fantasy novel titles. Maybe I want to avoid the whole “blank the blank” formula of title creation. Maybe it said something nasty about my mom. I don’t know.

Asherian’s Journal

Ash happens across a book a classmate of his had just bought which is blank, and he starts keeping track of his adventures in it. It’s something of a device to help us get a view of things from his perspective between chapters, but it’s not a very big part of the story. Mrs. Alchemist also pointed out that it “tells [the reader] nothing.”

What am I missing, here? Why can’t I pick a title? Which title do you think I should pick? Let’s make some alchemy happen, folks. Bring your disparate elements into the mix and let’s see if we can’t transmute some of these random ideas into the handle for the next bigass fantasy epic of all time. Or at least a little yarn about magic, dragons and interesting people that doesn’t suck.

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