Category: Writing (page 1 of 78)

From the Vault: Keeping It Real

Today I’m going back through my novel draft and changing the perspective of the narrative slightly. I did a quick search for ‘perspective’ and came across this post. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens drawing closer, it seemed appropriate to bring this one back. Enjoy!

Courtesy Marvel Studios

Writers: remember that you are writing about people.

Unless you are telling your story from the perspective of an entirely alien race (and good on you for taking on that challenge), you will be portraying events for your audience from the perspective of human beings. More often than not, even animal stories have human points of view: anthropomorphous protagonists are nothing new, from Orwell’s Animal Farm to The Adventures of Milo and Otis. And with that perspective comes the need for thought processes and authentic emotion.

I know there is a lot of entertainment out there that suggests, through one way or another, that the audience turn off their brains. And in some instances, this is fine. When you’re playing DOOM, you’re not necessarily contemplating the greater ramifications of blasting demons in the face with a shotgun. But when the entertainment has human beings, usually capable of higher thought processes, doing things that make no logical sense or have little tangible connection to one another, it can be difficult not to scratch your head in bewilderment. A great number of movies do this: they pace their action in such a way and frame it with such bombast that coherent thought gets overshadowed or lost altogether.

For example, compare Star Trek Into Darkness with Guardians of the Galaxy. Both are relatively light, free-flowing sci-fi action-adventures. Putting aside that the former is a far departure from its original source material, it is serviceable in what it does, and as I said in my review, does enough things right that it rises above the usual level of shallow tripe on which a great deal of in-name-only franchise movies can operate. However, it also sees characters with familiar names acting in ways that defy logical thought and reasoning. Meanwhile, in the latter film, characters operate in consistent ways, following their goals and motivations in what, to them, is a logical chain of reasoning. Their reactions and plans may seem unreasonable to others, but to them, it makes perfect sense. This is because the writers took the time to see things from those perspectives and conveyed their characters in ways that made us believe in them. It can be difficult, at times, to believe that Chris Pine is actually Captain Kirk; it is never a doubt that Chris Pratt is Peter Quill. Oh, excuse me, “Star-Lord”.

The emotional aspect, too, is something that sets Guardians of the Galaxy apart, in that the writing and acting work together so that we feel, rather than are told, what the characters are feeling. Good writing tends to be subtle in that way. Another potential example comes from one of the biggest buzz-worthy events of recent memory.

Courtesy Lucasfilm Ltd

For a brief moment, we see John Boyega in the teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He is, in fact, the first human we see, and in the moment we see his face, there’s already a lot going on. And I’m not just talking about a new black character in Star Wars (Shock! Alarm! Nerdrage!) or a black stormtrooper (or just a protagonist in stormtrooper armor like his possible spiritual ancestors Luke Skywalker and Han Solo – again, Shock! Alarm! Nerdrage!) being on screen. I’m talking about his face, his manner, the mood of the shot.

Say what you like about JJ Abrams (goodness knows, I have), he has always drawn out great performances from his actors. And in this shot, it looks to me like he’s bringing his A game to Star Wars. For this tiny sliver of time, John gives us a wealth of emotions just from his look and movements. He’s shocked. He’s desperate. He’s scared. He’s covered in sweat, moves with quick, furtive motions, and doesn’t stay in one place very long. As both a moment from the film and an invitation for the audience to become intrigued, it works very well.

What I’m driving at is that, even in science fiction and fantasy, the onus falls on the writers to keep the emotions and motivations real. Let your characters think rationally, provided they aren’t mad for one reason or another. And even then, spend some time in their shoes. Get to know what makes them tick, what makes sense from their perspective, and how they justify their actions. Villains are rarely, if ever, villainous for the sake of villainy. Hell, even the Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger had something to prove, even if he went about it in a villainous way and something was said about his true villainy coming out through one thing or another. Giving all of your characters the time and forethought required to have them convey true processes of thought and genuine moments of emotion is essential to writing a story that people will enjoy, and want to read more about. And if you want to be a successful writer, you’re going to want to have your readers coming back for more.

Return Of The Blue

Bard by BlueInkAlchemist, on Flickr

I can’t even begin to fully articulate what the last few weeks have been like for me.

Hospital. Near-eviction. Rapid, rabid mood swings. Disastrous car trouble. More car trouble. Moving. PAX. Yelling. Broken phones. Tears.

And yet…

Here I am. Whole. Unbowed. Determined. Unbent. Successful. Unbroken.

If I can survive this, I can probably survive just about anything. And despite the best efforts of my badbrain (which can be broken down into “head weasels” as my friend Faust puts it), I survived.

I’m sitting in the new apartment with things boxed up and some furniture needing assembly and distribution to rooms, but for the most part, it’s starting to feel comfortably like home. I can walk down to the nearby transit center, getting some very welcome daily cardio, and catch a bus downtown. I work there, now, at a lovely Starbucks, slinging coffee and smiling at folks who just want to get through their meetings or finish filing TPS reports. I remember that life, and I don’t envy them a bit. Getting back into food service has been like falling off of a bike: easy, and while it might have scraped me up a bit, gravity is a good force for teaching you how to pace yourself.

After my shift, I can walk up the hill to the Seattle Central Library, and write in a secluded, quiet space. I have some new ideas for the novel, and while I cringe at the thought of going back to the beginning to adjust something, I know it’ll benefit all future revisions and edits, as well as the final product. So that’s another to-do list item to check off come Tuesday.

For now, though, I’m resting and recouperating.

PAX was fantastic, in and of itself. I’ve often said that working a show brings out the best version of myself. Being around people I love and haven’t seen in months can kick me into a bit of a manic state, and I use that energy for positive, productive ends. I ride the demon; I do not let it ride me. It’s a mindset I need to continue to maintain outside of shows, and I’m hopeful that working a well-defined job with a solid schedule can help me do that. At PAX, I’m now in a managerial position, and this last show saw me helping with a new department. From all accounts, it went quite well. I’ve now been tapped for similar work with GeekGirlCon, and I predict making it to most if not all of the PAX shows in 2016. It’s a huge part of my life and a major inspiration.

As for everything else, the darkest of my dark thoughts feel far more irrational and distant than even a week before this writing. I’ve gotten my medication adjusted, and I’m seeing therapists again on a regular basis. I’m doing my utmost to keep lines of communication open and maintain honesty, without being cruel or unfeeling. Thinking before I speak, that sort of thing. It feels like this has been sort of a ‘soft reset’, on many levels. And I plan on making the most of it.

It feels like I’ve been away. Almost as if I’ve been separated from myself. I haven’t lost sight of my goals, but after everything I’ve been through in the past few weeks, those goals no longer seem so distant, so unobtainable. I can’t pretend that I don’t have hard work ahead of me. But at the same time, it’s work for which I’m suited. Telling stories. Seeing people as people. Listening. Feeling. Thinking on a situation and giving advice that not only placates, but guides and reinforces.

I am a good writer. A good friend. A good worker. A good person.

Nobody can take those things away from me.

Not even me.

The “Starving Artist” Is Bullshit

Courtesy Warner Bros.

This is a discussion that’s come up over the last few days. I believe it was David Hill who brought it to light (as he tends to do, verbose and uncompromising firebrand that he is), and Chuck Wendig, of course, dropped the definitive word-hammer on the issue with trademark aplomb. All I can really add is my personal experience and perspective, which boils down to this:

Being an actual starving artist absolutely sucks.

I have been without dayjob work for almost two months. Freelance work has been difficult for me to find. I’m at the point of applying for whatever I can find, just to pay the bills. This is in the middle of needing to find a new place to live, preparing for summer events, and managing my bipolar disorder, anxiety, and interactions with other human beings.

Oh, and I should still be writing somewhere in there, right?

One of the reasons I applied to use the Writer’s Room at Seattle’s Central Library is that it is a quiet, secluded place away from just about everything that could distract me. I bang out words there without issue or interruption. But as much solace as I take from my productivity, I know that, for now, it is only a temporary respite. At some point, I have to leave the sanctuary. I have to face the pressures and requirements of the outside world. I need to acquire income, to pull my weight, to feed my body so my mind can keep making words.

Ideally, making words is what would feed me, but I have no illusions that such a day is far off. I have a lot of work to do to have anything publishable that can give me a living source of income. Until then, I need to figure out a dayjob. Because starving sucks.

Now, I haven’t actually starved yet, obviously. I’m hungry, sure. Approaching desperation, maybe. But I’m privileged like crazy. I’m white, male, educated, and have the support of family and friends. Other artists aren’t so lucky.

I want to echo Chuck’s sentiment from his post: take care of yourselves. Make ends meet any way you can. Get a foundation of some form of security under you, a roof over your head, a means to keep yourself fed. It will go a long way to relieving your anxiety and depression (which, as an artist, you DO NOT NEED) and help you be more productive and working harder towards your true, ultimate goal.

It’s what I’m doing.

And despite the steps in the direction of my goal being painful, confusing, and frustrating, I’m still making them.

You can, too.

Break Your Heroes

Courtesy Warner Brs.

We like to think of our heroes as strong. When they fight evil or overcome obstacles or succeed in their goals, we aspire to the same heights. Deeds of daring and feats of strength or cunning drive us to be the sort of people we want to be, impeccable and flawless paragons of the virtues we espouse.

Those sorts of struggles, though, are not what people like you or me face daily.

I think that I am not alone in regularly facing reminders of the failures from the past. People we’ve let down. Goals we’ve failed to achieve. Situations we’ve failed to resolve. Relationships we’ve failed to repair. A litany of shortcomings and false starts that goes all the way back to our first bad grade or broken heart.

Why should our heroes be any different?

Part of the problem I’ve always had with Superman (before Zack Snyder introduced me to a whole slew of new problems to have with the character) is that he is virtually flawless. Being superhuman in strength, speed, endurance, and knowledge makes it difficult for him to fail in any challenges he faces physically or mentally. While he does run into some emotional obstacles, his virtuous nature and righteous motivations rarely see him on the failing end of his endeavors. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I do like Superman, especially as a foil for Batman, but it’s hard for me to relate to the character, for the most part.

Not so with the likes of Max Rockatansky.

Especially as he is shown in Mad Max: Fury Road, Max is a thoroughly broken individual. He is motivated by a need to survive, fueled by anger and fear, and almost entirely selfish when he’s at his worst. But the experiences of the wasteland in which he roams and the plight of those he encounters awakens something in him. He never really escapes the trauma of his past – he is plagued by night terrors and assaulted by visions even after he embraces his righteous cause. And yet, instead of remaining in the thrall of his brokenness, he rises above it, to the point that others are looking to him for support and guidance, rather than treating him with distrust and derision. That, to me, is true heroism.

Therefore, writers, I encourage you to break your heroes.

“Kill your darlings” is a familiar phrase for many fiction authors, but when it comes to protagonists, there is a sadistic streak in me that says death is too good for them. The true power in our narratives, the thrust of the human experience that keeps readers turning pages and the thumbs of television viewers from changing channels, is in seeing broken people pull themselves together. Moreso than punching bad guys, rescuing prisoners, or saving the world, there’s an upswell of emotion that comes in a moment where you see the better nature of a character emerge from within the cracks of their outer shell.

Max: You need to take the War Rig half a click up the track.
Max begins to head towards the Bullet Farmer’s noise and madness.
Furiosa: What if you don’t come back?
Max: pauses Then you keep going.

Overcoming external obstacles is impressive to be sure. But overcoming ourselves?

That’s a bit of the supernatural in everyday life, my friends.

The Flash Fiction Challenge

Courtesy floating robes
Courtesy Floating Robes

Since this week Chuck has challenged his writerly readers to come up with Flash Fiction challenges of their own, over here in my own writer-space I thought I’d talk about why flash fiction is, in and of itself, a challenge for writers. Serious authors bang out 1000 words or more a day as they propel themselves towards the completion of their drafts. They bend over keyboards and notepads, tapping or scratching out thousands of words on a daily basis. So why is flash fiction such a challenge?

Paradoxically, it’s because telling a story is easier with more words than less.

While it’s certainly true that a saga like Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire would be diminished if it were not told with multiple volumes of text, it’s just as true that stories of equal poignancy have been told with a tiny fraction of such sagas’ word counts. Consider Hemingway’s shortest story:

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

Other authors have done similar work, turning a mere six words into fully-realized, powerful tales. I make no claims of being a Hemingway, a Whedon, or an Atwood, so I’m much more comfortable trying to tell a story in 1000 words rather than six. Still, it can be a great challenge. You have to show rather than tell in as few words as possible. You must keep the tale simple while ascribing adequate depth. Your characters need to come alive in just a sentence or two.

It is an amazing way to keep your writing skills sharp.

Writers burn out. It takes a lot of energy to create. As with any work of art, a well-written story costs the author in time and motivation and fatigue. This is especially true if writing is not the primary profession of the author; if time for writing must be carved out around the time occupied by another form of employment or other responsibilities, it can be even more taxing. As strong as the need to write might be, and as much as unfulfilled word counts might haunt the author, there are only so many hours in the day.

Flash fiction keeps the wheels greased. It quiets the authorial demons hounding you to get more shit done. Oh, you should still get it done, don’t get me wrong. It’s just easier to dispense with things like laundry and TPS reports and menial labor when you get just a little writing done. It takes the edge off, while paradoxically sharpening your nibs. And prompts, like those over at Terribleminds, make it even easier to get into the habit of knocking a little flash fiction out on a regular basis.

I recommend Chuck and his books and blog for a lot of reasons: the brilliance, the profanity, the fearlessness, the strength of character, the clarity of voice, the beard. But let me add one more reason: most Fridays, he issues his Flash Fiction challenge. If you’re inclined to write, I highly recommend trying your hand at meeting one of those challenges. Your writing will improve. You’ll tell interesting stories. And you’ll feel accomplished, as well as in good company when you read other entries. Give it a try. I highly doubt you’ll be disappointed in what happens.

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