Turning dreams into gold, one jot & scribble at a time.

Writing

Making Words Happen

Bard by BlueInkAlchemist, on Flickr

Writers are a curious breed, by and large. They can be very difficult to live with. They have a tendency to live inside their own heads. Over and above anything else, they are richly imaginative creatures that bring whole new worlds to life.

To make those worlds viable and accessible for an audience, a writer must put their imagination into words and assemble those words into a coherent narrative. Believe it or not, the words are the easy part. They exist in the writer’s brain like precious metal in the veins of a mine’s rock. They’re already there. They just have to get from the veins to the page.

This requires more than imagination. Making words happen requires perseverance. Crafting new stories and populating them with vibrant, believable characters is not a once-and-done sort of thing, except in the case of flash fiction. To hammer out a long narrative that will stick with audiences and have them coming back for more, a writer has to commit time, focus, and energy to the project every day, at least in some measure. Every word counts, and every letter matters.

Keep at it, writers. Don’t give up. Making words happen is what we do, and it’s something we need to do. Our stories are worth completion, because the world needs more stories that come from unique perspectives and bring entertainment and inspiration into the lives of others. Your stories are worth telling. Take the time and energy to tell them.


Keeping It Real

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.


From the Vault: How to Survive Living with a Writer

For the benefit of my new flatmates, here are some tips on living with a writer!


Courtesy floating robes
Courtesy Floating Robes

One of the most popular posts ever over at terribleminds is this one, entitled “Beware of Writer.” He also penned a sequel that’s just as worthwhile to read. But let’s say you’ve ignored his advice. You’re going to fly in the face of common sense and good taste and actually shack up with one of us crackpot writer-types, in spite of the tiny hurricanes of impotent rage and the nigh-constant smell of booze. Here’s a couple things to keep in mind that may help you keep from running screaming into the night.

Writers are Finicky Bitches

In addition to being very easily distracted (if you didn’t know, we are), writers can get new ideas all the time, at the drop of a hat. It’s not uncommon for a writer to have a few projects at work at any given time. Let’s say our subject is working on a novel and some poetry, and all of a sudden gets an idea for a new tv series about puppet detectives. It’s not enough for us to be distracted by video games or movies or pet antics or offspring or bright flashing lights or loud noises. No no, we need to distract ourselves on top of all of that.

Writers either drift in a slight miasma of barely cognizant perceptions as they indulge in their distractions, or they’re frustrated by efforts to reassert their concentration on something they’re righting. It can make a writer seem bipolar. And if they really are bipolar, woo boy you talk about fun times!1

Surviving this as an outsider requires a metric fuckton of patience. Either you will be asked to participate in some sort of odd habit, or you will be all but ignored as something new distracts the writer. You can go along with it or rail against it, but the important thing is to remind the writer that they should, at some point, write. Yes, you may get bitten over it. That’s what the rolled-up newspaper is for. Aim for the nose.

Writers are Masters (and Mistresses) of Excuses

You’re going to catch a writer not writing. This can be like catching a teenager with their pants down and making them explain the nature of the self-examination they seem to be enjoying. You just need to keep in mind that procrastination is perfectly natural and lots of writers do it. There are even some writers who encourage other writers to procrastinate.

Before I stretch that metaphor any more uncomfortably, the important thing to note is that writers will tell you all manner of tall tales in an effort to avoid your scrutiny. Especially if said writer’s bailiwick is fiction. I mean, come on, these people lie for a living. Or at least as a primary hobby. Of course they’re going to tell you space monkeys invaded in the middle of the night and that’s why the lawn hasn’t been mowed or the dishes remain unwashed. Damn dirty space simians!2

Just as writers need and, if they’re responsible and good, want to be told when something they write doesn’t quite work, writers also need to occasionally be called on their bullshit. “Space monkeys? I don’t see any poo on the walls other than your own. It’s time to shut off the Internet and make some more of that word magic happen, pooplord.” Your exact wording may vary, but you get the idea.

Writers Do, In Fact, Want to Write

So let’s say you’re keeping a writer focused on the now. You’re getting them to help out around the house. They’re watching the kids. They’re cooking meals. They’re renovating your siding and keeping you in whatever it is you like to do when you’re not working. Guess what they’re not doing?

If you guessed “writing”, you just won a bigass shiny No-Prize! Congrats!3

Take a look at any writer pontificating on the need to write, and you’ll see something emerge. There’s definitely a deep-seated compulsion there. On top of any other madness or psychosis, a writer needs to write. Yes, the writer may procrastinate, putter around, put off writing because writing can suck a big fat one from time to time, but at the end of the day, writing is at the core of who that person is, otherwise – Anyone? Anyone? Beuller? – they wouldn’t be a writer.

So do them and yourself a favor. Take the kids for an hour. Put the video game down yourself. Mow the lawn or wash a few dishes. Just give them space, and a little bit of time. If it’s been a while since they’ve written, you bet your ass words will happen while you’re tending to chores.

Or you could not, and they’ll resent you in a deeply personal way. Your call.

I think this may be the biggest key to surviving life with a writer. Giving a little measure of time to write, moreso than calling them on excuses or distractions, relieves the pressure in their minds and helps them get closer to their goals. And the writer will love you for it.


1 I can’t say anybody acted all that surprised when I was diagnosed as bipolar. There was plenty of relief that legitimate psychosis wasn’t involved, though. Not that the doctors could detect, at least. Suckers.

2 They’re rude as hell, too. Coming in the middle of the evening and keeping me from finishing a blog post with their howling and poop-slinging and I was researching League of Legends champion builds and got distracted from finishing this last night I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry please don’t bap me with the newspaper again.

3 Actual contents of No-Prize may vary, from “absolutely nothing” to “sweet fuck-all.”


Masks Off

Courtesy DC/Vertigo

Read more…


Go Outside

Courtesy allthingshealing.com

I love the amenities of modern life. Video games, the Internet, films, toaster ovens, books, on and on. As a writer, I am used to making myself a bit of a recluse, something of a hermit, tucked away in a solitary room where shelves heave with papers and the only sounds are the tapping of keys, the scratching of nibs on parchment, and my occasional outburst of profanity.

But I have to remind myself that I need to go outside.

People are outside. This can be a frightening thing, to be sure, but it’s also where stories come from. Every person is experiencing their own story. There’s also the fact that this is our audience, as writers. The people wandering the streets, riding in buses, and grinding their teeth in cubicles want – no, need the escape fiction provides. And we, as writers, are poised to provide that escape.

Fresh air is good for you. Even a brisk walk to and from the corner store can do wonders for the body and the mind. I’m a big proponent of public transit, not only for the environmental aspect and its positive affect on city infrastructure, but because it promotes folks like me not being quite so lazy and actually walking more from place to place. I have errands to run, and I’m actually looking forward to it, because it means getting out of the house.

I’m not saying you have to go run a 5k. I’m not saying you should eschew key work times to go for a stroll. I am, however, saying you should go outside from time to time. Your work, your games, and your refreshments will still be there when you return, and the rewards will be all the sweeter for your efforts.


NaNoWriNOW

Courtesy floating robes
Courtesy Floating Robes

Hey, you out there!

Yes, you! Aspiring novelist! Getting geared up for NaNoWriMo? Got some ideas? Pencils sharpened, pens inked, paper at the ready? Excellent!

I wish you the best of luck.

I won’t be participating this year. Or… maybe ever.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the concept. It’s a structured event to shake would-be writers out of complacency and the motivation-sucking doldrums of everyday life, and makes them write, dammit. I mean, if you are a writer, you should be writing. Otherwise, this fellow is going to yell at you. And you don’t want that. Trust me, you don’t want that. It’s all shotguns and dogs and beards and whiskey breath and using “fuck” as a preposition and oh god the nightmares.

I kid, I kid. He actually does brush his teeth.

But that’s why I won’t be doing NaNoWriMo. I have one novel that’s been in final draft hell for far too long, and another idea that is so eager for me to start writing about it I can feel it lingering in the back of my mouth, like the somewhat cottony feeling from last night’s drinking binge that can only be washed away with more precious booze. So I’m not going to wait for November to start writing that novel; I’m going to start right the hell now.

Well, as soon as I finish this post, but you get the idea.

As I’ve said, I don’t want to disparage NaNoWriMo. I say if you want or need the impetus to get that idea moving forward, go for it. I’ll be happy to cheer you on and give all the advice and support I can.

I just don’t feel I can wait for the new month to roll around.

I have, in a very real sense, waited long enough. Too long.

My time to write is now.


From the Vault: Change the Scene

I am recovering from a long and exhausting but very fulfilling weekend. While I regather myself to make more concerted efforts, I’m doing writing in multiple parts of the house, so this seems appropriate for a From the Vault moment. Flash Fiction tomorrow!


A nook for writing.

I’ve been finding it difficult to write lately. I have a ton of ideas chasing themselves around in my head, projects to complete and new novels to start, yet I’m running into some serious roadblocks. I have to assume that I’m not alone: a lot of writers are pre-occupied with many things, from life events to other endeavors to all sorts of personal issues. You should be writing – we all should – and if you’re not writing, something has to change.

If nothing else, you have to change your scene. A lot of writers have a particular area set aside for their craft. Away from foot traffic, secluded in some way, or just portioned off from the rest of a room, it is their fortress of solitude. When I move, I will be taking my writing desk with me, and it will be in a different corner from my computer desk. Even if it’s just across the room, that separation is crucial.

When life gets tossed into upheaval, it can be difficult to maintain the things that are essential to both our futures and our happiness. There’s a great deal of immediate tasks to deal with when changes occur in life, and not everybody has the same reaction time. To get back to the good places from where we can be productive and happy, sometimes the scene has to change.

I’m going to keep working on getting myself to that place. That’s how I’m going to beat back the dark things and stay on track with my goals.


Against the Grind

Gears

The writers I am fortunate enough to know either in passing or in person are exceptional people. They are endlessly creative, skilled with language, and above all else, pretty stubborn. You have to be, if you want to make it as a writer. Especially given the systems in place in the world around us.

When I would doubt myself or encounter bullies in my school days, my mother would tell me “illigitimus non carborundum – don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Despite being faux Latin, the phrase stuck with me. However, I’ve come to understand that rather than individuals doing the bullying, there is an entire system that wants to grind me, and people like me, down.

In my case, the saddest part is that I subjected myself to it. Be it due to pressure from an impending life-change toward marriage and parenting or a complete lack of confidence in my ability to sell myself and my words, I turned away from the written word and towards a more immediately lucrative career path in programming. I can’t say for sure if any one of the several motivations I had back then took the fore, or if it was a dire mix of many things, including undiagnosed mental health issues, that pushed me towards that threshold. Regardless, it was a decision I made, and I alone shoulder the blame for the next twelve years of struggle, failure, and aimless meandering.

Yet, I never quite lost sight of that dream. I tried to maintain at least a semblance of writerdom, carving out words where I could. That is really what makes a writer, more than any sort of published success or positive reviews. The willingness to never give up. It was something absolutely necessary to maintain in the face of employers and creditors and clients. None of them gave an actual damn about my dreams, my frustrations, or what I was seeking to make my life better: it’s all about the bottom line in those systems.

As bitter as I might be about time lost to what was ultimately a dead-end pursuit, I know that without my experiences, encounters, and endurance of those times, I would not be who I am today. I could have struggled just as long given my relative inability to sell myself, and my writing has developed during that time in spite of the workload. Provided I can maintain a proper level of motivation, I should be able to use my experiences and desire to avoid those dead ends to achieve the goals I have been striving for as long as I can remember.

Artists in general, and writers in particular, are iconoclasts. Molds and strict structures get broken. Work ethics and methods work in mysterious ways that baffle the bureaucrat and frustrate human resources. In the eyes of the strictly corporate world, writers should not be able to function properly, and yet they do, and sometimes even turn a profit while doing so.

Go forth and do likewise, writers! Make some businesspeople’s heads spin. Work against the grind. And don’t ever let the bastards, whomever they might be in your life, get you down.


Let’s Talk Comedy

To keep my spirits up during one of the most unusual and patience-testing transitional periods in my life, I’ve been checking out more comedy. Before my move, I hadn’t watched much It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or any Arrested Development or Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Between those shows, and keeping up with The Daily Show, Colbert Reportm, and @midnight, I’ve been thinking about what makes good comedy, and all of its different styles. I feel that it’s a very subjective topic, as what is funny to one person is completely tasteless to another, but I think there are a few objective facts we can consider regarding various approaches to making people laugh.

I think that stand-up comedy and improv take different skill sets. Stand-ups write their material in advance, and focus on making sure their delivery is earnest and clear. Improv performers work almost entirely off the cuff, playing with one another in a very real way to make the comedy as spontaneous and energetic as possible. Some stand-ups can whip out jokes on the fly, and some improv performers do great stand-up. But in both cases, when the performers are on, the laughs flow freely.

I’ve never really liked laugh tracks. Live audiences are definitely better, especially in a show that flows organically like the above mentioned Comedy Central shows, or live shows like Saturday Night Live. Spontaneous laughter is the best. I have to wonder on some sitcoms with live audiences if there are prompts to laugh or applaud. This probably isn’t the case, but when I have trouble laughing at something like The Big Bang Theory, I find myself curious.

The thing about situation comedies is that the comedy should be in the situations. While characters certainly matter, in that their interactions and clashes either aggravate or undercut said situations, I don’t feel that the flaws or difficulties of the characters should be the crux or point of the humor. While a character with what might be called defects can put others into funny situations, said defects should not be depicted as funny in and of themselves. That method seems insensitive, and for me, it kills the humor.

That could just be me, though. Like I said, comedy is subjective. What do you find funny? What comedy for you falls flat?


Where’s My Momentum?

Courtesy Matt Groening

As much as old habits die hard, when you’re out of practice it can be very difficult to find your groove again. I just finished my first workout in I-don’t-know-how-long, and all of my joints popped over the course of it. Like, all of them. I even had to stop squatting since my right knee popped in a way that was worrisome and uncomfortable. And that’s to say nothing on my writing.

I’m having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. Perhaps a sign of depression, or a side-effect of the changing nature of my employment status, it’s difficult to say which. But rather than stay in bed doing nothing, I am frustrated to the point of wanting to take action.

Suffice it to say that the blog hasn’t picked right back up where I left off. It’s taking a bit longer to get going than I would have liked. But it is going, at the very least. I’m here. You’re here. That’s what matters.

I continue to contend that tomorrow will be better than yesterday, which means that soon today will be entirely surpassed. All I have to do is keep pushing forward.


Concerning Clearly Communicating Characters

With the exception of nature documentaries, or very oddly esoteric works, narrative entertainment is driven by characters. Characters, more often than not, communicate with one another through dialog. Time and time again, especially in films, we see this dialog become murky, bogged down, or unnecessarily obtuse. Unless it is completely essential to your plot, or the character themselves, your characters should communicate clearly with one another.

Sometimes characters will have difficulty communicating as part of their nature. Their world-view may be skewed or a mental condition may color how they see and relate to others. These characters can make for important, powerful stories about human nature. But the bulk of the problematic characters that come to mind when I talk about expository dialog and the like are not saddled with psychological or personality disorders that affect their speech or outlook. Most of them are just badly written. Dialog drives so much – why waste it on exposition or clarification unless it is absolutely necessary?

One particularly egregious violation of good taste in dialog is “the pronoun game”. One character makes a comment about what’s happening but, instead of naming names, they use an ambiguous pronouns. The other character has to ask for clarification, which is then easily or dramatically given. It’s a waste of the audience’s time, especially if we have already met the party to whom the first character is referring.

There is one sort-of exception to this rule that I can think of – a heist tale. If you’re spinning a yarn where you want your protagonists to be particularly clever, it can be useful to provide the setup for the caper, cut to the action, and have them recount elements of it afterward, so that what seems to be very fortuitous timing is seen instead as excellent forethought and careful planning. From highly stylized films like Ocean’s Eleven to works of written fiction such as Jim Butcher’s Skin Game, this method is proven to work in this case. But I really can’t think of any others.

It is just as true for this storytelling challenge as most others: the best way to tell your story is through action, not exposition. Let characters show, rather than tell, what is happening in their minds and all around them. History and motivation should become evident in when and how they act, rather than providing a dry, plodding dossier through expositional dialog. Your characters drive your story – don’t let their dialog drive it into the ground.


From the Vault: The Limitless Genre

With the smashing success of Guardians of the Galaxy, let’s take another look at what can be done within sci-fi.


Courtesy Eidos Interactive

If you step away from science fiction, you may see a tendency among its writers and creators to divide it up into different sub-genres. Time travel is practically its own sort of story, as is ‘hard’ sci-fi, along with various “_____punk” styles and derivations of the space opera. I mean, Blade Runner is noir, Flash Gordon is camp, and never the twain shall meet. Right?

This doesn’t always have to be the case. Imposing the limits of a particular style of story can make writing said story easier, but you also run the risk of falling into cliches and conventions of said style. At a Barnes & Noble yesterday, I saw that a good portion of the sci-fi & fantasy racks had been set aside specifically for “teen paranormal romance.” Something tells me I have a good idea as to the content of those books, and of their average quality. Some may be spectacular, but I suspect others are sub-par to the point of making Twilight look good.

Let’s get back to science fiction as an overarching genre. I don’t feel you need to pick a particular sub-category into which you must pigeonhole your story. Deux Ex: Human Revolution doesn’t. The game has noir & renaissance overtones throughout but goes from conspiracy intrigue and solid character moments to incredible action and out-there sciences within moments. Yet none of it feels out of place. It is consistent with the themes and timbre of the story. Adam Jensen is a man reborn and remade, both struggling to maintain his identity and utilizing the benefits of his augmentations to do his job and find his answers. In most detective yarns, a scene where the protagonist punches through a wall before turning invisible would be rather out of place. Likewise, few are the space operas that truly tackle the aftermath of a tragedy the way this game does. The elements are balanced in such a way that all of them combine without losing sync and creating a richer, more rewarding storytelling experience.

Why shouldn’t sci-fi go for multiple tones and moods? Obviously this needs to be done with care, lest the emotional moments become too saturnine or the high-action ones come off as overly ridiculous. In a story like this, you only get so many style points in your tale with which you can get away with “cool shit” moments. Too many and you’ve become style over substance. Too few, however, and your story becomes dry and plodding. Again, the watchword is balance.

And I believe it is a balance worth striking. Science fiction can include all sorts of threads from other genres of storytelling, from romance to horror to crime to adventure. Once all is said and done, be able to look over the work and say, “I’ve got a _______punk action-mystery” can be useful for marketing it, but my point is the genre only has the limits we choose to impose. Moon is phenomenal because of how hard its science is, and if your goal in writing is to go for something similar, by all means work within those constraints. There is, however, no obligation to pick a particular pigeonhole from the outset. Science fiction is our contemplation of the heavens, the nature of the universe, the exploration of the impossible, and the examination of the individual within all of it. It is, like those heavens, and like our imaginations, limitless.

What examples of sci-fi that break from traditional molds come to mind for you?


Bring Out Your Dead

Courtesy HBO & GRRM

Writers are murderers. This is an established fact. But I would contend that only bad writers kill characters on a whim, “just because”. If you look at good writing, a character death is never accidental, never flippant. It’s a calculated move. And, if you’re attached to said character or characters, after the initial shock, if you think about it, you can nod and say “Yes, that was a good death.”

Spoilers ahead, obviously.

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Quite a few character deaths are, unfortunately, are a means of raising the stakes. Joss Whedon has a habit of doing this. From Shepard Book and Wash in Serenity to Coulson in The Avengers, the death of characters is a sudden gut-punch that knocks the wind out of the audience for a moment and demonstrates that things are serious, and deadly. Our pathos shoots up for those left behind. We feel raw loss at the same time as the surviving characters, and while this can sometimes feel like manipulation on the writer’s part, the effect is undeniable.

Character deaths are even better when they are the result of character decisions and actions, cause and effect, leading to that terminal point. I think of The Wire as a good example of this. Some of the character deaths may seem senseless, in one case even random, but a moment’s thought puts the violence in context, and the realization comes that every bullet is the final result of a series of choices made by the characters. Especially since good writers go out of their way to realize their characters as people, we can understand why those decisions were made, even if we don’t agree with them.

A Song Of Ice And Fire is notorious for character deaths, but here is another example of characters dying more as a result of deicions made by themselves or others, rather than seemingly at the whim of the author. The deaths are just as calculated, but the arithmetic is obscured by deep characterization and excellent dialog. Consider the death of Tywin Lannister. Here is a man who had power and ambition, but also cunning and charisma. He definitely made enemies, and burned a lot of bridges, but for a while, he seemed almost untouchable. But many of the decisions he made were disadvantageous for his second son, Tyrion. He underestimated the fury and calculation of his malformed child, and even when the terminal point was reached, Tywin’s pride does not allow for him to do anything other than confront Tyrion directly and boldly. Neither man backs down and, in the end, it’s the one with the crossbow that walks away.

So. Character deaths. Let’s talk about them. What has stood out in your mind as a good death for characters? Which have seemed pointless, or badly executed? How powerful is death when applied from a writer’s toolbox?


The Lived-In Universe

Couretsy LucasArts

For a long time, space travel in fiction was predominantly shiny. Long, slender, cigar-shaped rockets predominantly made of chrome blasted off towards the stars. More often than not, equally shiny flying saucers spun their way towards our suburban homes to shower our Sunday barbecues with death rays. I am exaggerating a bit, but what I’m driving at is there was an aesthetic that remained largely untapped until 1977.

Just before then, the shiny sci-fi aesthetic extended to both realistic films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and episodic television such as Star Trek. Roddenberry, in particular, envisioned the future as a utopia, peaceful and squeaky-clean. Then along came a little movie called Star Wars. From the very beginning, it was something different. The Star Destroyer was enormous, imposing, and definitely not peaceful. The Tantive IV, said Star Destroyer’s prey, was battered and utilitarian. Mos Eisley was both visually and ethically dirty. And the Millenium Falcon? What a piece of junk!

The galaxy far, far away as envisioned by George Lucas is the result of literally thousands of years of history. The worlds and ships are used and lived-in. Even callbacks to earlier times, the tales set in the Old Republic, have worn edges and is painted with shades of gray morally and aesthetically. It was this, not the shiny utopian vision, that informed the immediate followers of Star Wars, such as the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Gene Roddenberry tried to resist this trend. Star Trek: The Next Generation was a big, bold utopian statement, to the point that Roddenberry himself said that there should be no interpersonal conflict on the gigantic new USS Enterprise. This lead to early seasons of the show often feeling pretentious and sterile. Thankfully, later seasons moved past this to have the crew behave more like real people than Federation pontificators, and Deep Space Nine pushed things even further. That show was concurrent with shows like Babylon 5 and FarScape, both of which introduced universes that were both brand new and familiar in their dynamics and feeling of history.

As fun as it is to envision a shiny, utopian future, the fact is that a more lived-in universe is more accessible to a wider audience. We picture ourselves more easily in a galaxy with some history, some mileage, and some rough edges, because it’s closer to the world we actually live in. We’ve walked down a street like the one we see in Mos Eisley. We’re familiar with being elbow-deep in our vehicle trying to get it to behave. We’ve had conversations with very stubborn, well-reasoned people, and tried to fight back against things that we feel are wrong, even if it’s an uphill battle. These are universal elements to good storytelling, no matter what the ‘verse in question might be – looking at you, Firefly.

What are some other instances of science fiction feeling lived-in and familiar, despite being set in galaxies far, far away?


Connect Your Characters

Courtesy Netflix

Good fiction, when you get down to it, is about people.

I don’t just mean the characters. It’s true that, no matter how original or fascinating your premise, you need to have three-dimensional characters. If your characters are flat or uninteresting, or exists solely as ciphers for your own expectations or those of the reader, or blank slates upon whom the reader can project, the story will fall apart. Characters with depth and personality keep your story going and, at times, can even help you write it. If you find yourself trying to write out of a corner, have your characters strike up a conversation. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. Just have them start talking to one another. Before you know it, you’re either out of the situation you were in, or you’ve started something new.

However, when I refer to good fiction being about people, I also mean the audience. A good novel thrives on the reader wanting to turn the next page – or, perhaps, not wanting to, for fear of what will happen next to the characters they’re following. To truly hook a reader in this way, there has to be a connection between them and the characters you’ve created. While you can’t necessarily make a reader give a damn about your characters, you can certainly encourage them to do so.

Compelling stories thrive on conflict, be it internal or external. I don’t just mean the gunfights and fisticuffs. What moral decisions must the characters grapple with? What complications arise due to relationships, be they familial or social? Is there a supervisor involved, and if so, is there tension or disagreement there? Are there incidents in the character’s past that embarrass them? If a character’s present form is different from one they had in the past, how do the people around them reconcile that change?

Even more questions can be asked based on the role the character is filling. If they’re a protagonist, what are their motives, and can an audience get behind them? When they make a decision that is against the law or contrary to prevailing morality, will the reader understand why and, more to the point, accept it? Can your antagonists justify their actions in a way that’s understood, or even forging a connection of their own to the audience? Doing these things will elevate your storytelling.

Ask yourself these questions. Find the ways to connect your characters to your readers. It’s a solid way to make a good story into a great one.


Blood from Sisyphus

Courtesy floating robes
Courtesy Floating Robes

Lately, that feeling has come back. Every time I get that heavy, bulky, stinking boulder up to the top of the hill, it rolls back down on top of me. I think I’m overdue for a vacation. My family reunion starts tomorrow (and I will have posts ready, I swear!), so that will probably help, but right now I’m mired in a lot of things I’d rather not delve into in a general, scattershot-to-the-Internet basis.

So I will just say that getting my best work from me at a time like this is like getting blood from a stone. I’m just trying to boulder-roll my way through what’s in front of me to get to better things, and I know that such a bull-headed approach can lead to things appearing as not my best work. I’m trying to get past that, too. Maybe I’m working too hard, or maybe I’m overthinking things.

Either way, it’s been a time when I’ve been smacking my forehead against the wall between me and where I want to be, and I’m not stopping until either I or the wall gets destroyed.

And it’s not going to be me.


The Sith Have A Point

Courtesy LucasFilms

The X-Wing Miniatures Game by Fantasy Flight has been teasing me for a long time. I’ve tried to keep my attentions elsewhere, but with the excellent review over at Shut Up & Sit Down has nailed the coffin shut on my intentions. Soon, I will be picking up the Starter Set, and I have the feeling I will be fielding the Imperial forces. Despite the fact that we are intended to sympathize and root for the heroic underdog Rebellion, we have to remember that every villain from our perspective is the hero from theirs, and when you get right down to it, the Sith have a point.

The Jedi are held up as paragons of virtue, galactic peacekeepers devoid of emotional attachment and personal ambition. However, if you give them more than a cursory glance, you start to see leaks in this presentation. They say that ‘only a Sith deals in absolutes,’ yet they consider Sith to always be on the wrong side of a battle. Always. No exceptions. An absolute. Makes you think, doesn’t it? There’s also the fact that the Jedi Masters that we find ourselves keying into – Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, etc – are often seen as renegades or iconoclastic among other Jedi. Others attempt to adhere to their strict adherence to being emotionless icons of righteousness. Absolute ones at that.

The Sith seem to have a different approach. While many of them do pursue selfish ambitions that result in others getting hurt or the innocent getting suppressed, the general philosophy embraces the strength of independence, free thought, and ambition. It’s certainly true that this sort of thinking can lead to people going down darker paths. However, it can be argued that a path of righteousness can also lead to dark places. Not that Jedi would ever admit this. Sith strike me as more honest in retrospect; the Jedi have good intentions but their strictures can yield rigid minds devoid of mercy as much as they are of emotion. As brutal as some of them can be, they have a point – passion can be every bit as powerful as rigid adherence to strictures, and in some cases, the passionate path is preferable, and not necessarily easier.

For all of the flak Lucas deservedly gets for some of his ill-advised creative decisions, the universe he created is not devoid of merit, and this dichotomy is worth examination. Instead of the naked good/evil conflict we see all too often, in the right hands it can be a crucial examination of the debate between free thought and organized discipline.

It can also be a simple backdrop for laser swords and dogfights in space.


500 Words on Setbacks

RetroFitness of East Norriton

Two mornings after my first trip to the gym in months, my body is still sore. In fact, my left calf muscle (the ‘gastrocnemius ‘ I believe) has a fresh pull in it. It was enough to keep me in bed for a time. So, instead, I’m packing my gym bag and I’m going after work.

I hate going to the gym at night. It’s usually more crowded, more loud, and it can be more difficult to access the equipment I need. The gym I currently attend has just the one squat rack, and if I am going to get back to where I was in terms of my fitness routine and set new goals, I need to get a better handle on my squats. It’s possible I hit the rack a bit too hard on Wednesday, so when I go back tonight, I’ll try to go a bit easier on myself.

We all experience setbacks. Plans get changed, if not thrown into upheaval, when the unexpected happens. We don’t always get all of the information, or process everything correctly, to set things out right the first time. Mistakes are made. Oversights occur. Gaps in knowledge appear and every skillset has some demonstrable weaknesses.

This isn’t something you should punish yourself over.

Life is hard enough without self-deprecation coming into the mix. While it’s important to be salient regarding our own flaws, lest we fall into the trap of thinking ourselves blameless for our plights, berating ourselves for inevitable setbacks is not as important as planning the means to overcome those obstacles. Let’s face it – the problem is still going to be there no matter how much you flog yourself over it. It isn’t going to go away just because you’re laying into yourself to a noticeable degree.

Take the time to note where things went wrong. Understand the causes for the setback. Make yourself aware of these things going forward, if you can, as it may prevent future problems. And deal with what’s in front of you. The words you don’t write because you’re too contrite or too tired will remain unwritten until you write them. There’s no achievement to unlock for feeling sorry for yourself. Forward is the only direction that really matters.

This is another case of me reminding myself of these things at the same time I’m communicating them to others. I can’t pretend to have any authority on this, or much of anything, and I certainly don’t consider myself a success story worth emulating. Still, I do know that I’ve had my share of setbacks, some even self-inflicted. I did manage to survive them, somehow. And on top of everything, there are more in my future. I know this for a fact. Because, last time I checked, I’m a human being. I’m going to fuck up at some point or another.

It doesn’t matter what my intentions were, or how I would have done things differently. What matters, and what always matters, is what will happen next.


From the Vault: Everything Old Is New Again

A post from last year: updated to reflect the fact that my memories of both Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness have soured considerably.


Courtesy Relativity Media

I’ve been blogging for years. I’m not sure if you’d call what I’ve done or have been doing successful or not, when it comes to blogging and other areas of my life, but what I keep coming back to is the fact that old stories still have something to tell us. I have no problem, on a fundamental level, with something getting a reboot or a re-imagining, as long as the core of the story remains intact and the talented people telling the story are either plying close to that core or going in an entirely new direction with it.

The problem, as I see it, is that it is far too easy to stick to the old story points and simply apply modern thinking to them, rather than take a tale’s themes or characters or message in a new direction. What really bothers me about the practice is how lazy it seems. If you want to use an old tale or property to tell a story, go for it; all that I would ask is that you do something new with it. Another example would be the difference between Immortals and the Clash of the Titans retread: while Immortals had a little trouble staying on-point with its storytelling, its visual imagination and portrayal of ancient Greece felt unique and striking, while the new Titans felt drab and lackluster on pretty much all fronts. I mean, sure, it was still fun to see Sam Worthington fight giant scorpions, and Liam Neeson was born to play gods, but the thrust of the story felt weak because there was nothing new about it.

As scarce as new ideas tend to be, it’s no wonder that older stories often come up for a rehash now and again. As I’ve said, I’m all about old stories getting told in new ways. The emphasis here is on ‘new’ – a good storyteller should try to do something that hasn’t been done before, or mix things together that haven’t been mixed. Any idiot with a keyboard can bash out a story about a superhero or vampires or old myths – the question is, what makes your story about a superhero or vampires or old myths stand out? What will make people want to read it? Why, at the end of the day, do you have to write it?


500 Words on Momentum

Courtesy allthingshealing.com

With everything that’s been happening, I am more and more aware that it can be extremely difficult to maintain a consistent pace. From running to writing to preparing for life’s next adventure, things seem to be happening in short, irregular bursts, rather than unfolding according to any sort of plan. I keep telling myself that I’m going to do X, or set things up for Y, or be more vigilant regarding Z, but more often than not, I’m just satisfied in getting home and being free from responsibility for at least a couple hours.

A big part of it is, I believe, momentum. Last year at this time, I was working out regularly, pretty much every day, and pushing myself to write more. I’m not sure where all of that energy went, or if it never left and I simply lost my pace of the long, cold winter and the rough road I’ve been on over the last few months. It can be hard to start certain things, like an exercise regimen or an intense artistic endeavor, but I’ve found that once you do get started, it can be equally hard to stop.

There are a lot of things you can do to jump-start your endeavors. An adjustment in sleep or diet can be a good place to start, as can changing your surroundings. Leave what’s holding you back behind, at least for the time being, and let one of your new ideas have some time in the spotlight. You really don’t know how something is going to turn out until you try it, after all, so even if a new project goes nowhere, if it leads to you coming back to something you were struggling with stronger than ever, it will not have been a waste of time.

In fact, time you spend trying to regain momentum is not a waste, either. I’ve never been mountain climbing, but I imagine the same applies. The first few steps up a mountainside are not a waste of time, no matter how deliberate you make your pace to prepare yourself for the climb, take in the scenery, snap photos, or take another inventory. When you’re preparing to run, you may spend time making sure your water, your music, your shoes, everything is in order. Again, not a waste of time. It helps organize your mind to deal with what’s ahead. And it’s likely to make the event even more rewarding.

This is a case of saying it to myself as much as to anyone reading: Don’t give up. Keep trying. Continue to push forward. Even if you’ve stumbled, tripped, or slowed to catch your breath, the race is not over. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. If you’ve lost your pace, don’t worry. You can get it back. Just keep breathing and measure your steps. Before you know it, you’ll be beating your old times and on the road to victory. You just have to want it. You can do it!


Change The Scene

A nook for writing.

I’ve been finding it difficult to write lately. I have a ton of ideas chasing themselves around in my head, projects to complete and new novels to start, yet I’m running into some serious roadblocks. I have to assume that I’m not alone: a lot of writers are pre-occupied with many things, from life events to other endeavors to all sorts of personal issues. You should be writing – we all should – and if you’re not writing, something has to change.

If nothing else, you have to change your scene. A lot of writers have a particular area set aside for their craft. Away from foot traffic, secluded in some way, or just portioned off from the rest of a room, it is their fortress of solitude. When I move, I will be taking my writing desk with me, and it will be in a different corner from my computer desk. Even if it’s just across the room, that separation is crucial.

When life gets tossed into upheaval, it can be difficult to maintain the things that are essential to both our futures and our happiness. There’s a great deal of immediate tasks to deal with when changes occur in life, and not everybody has the same reaction time. To get back to the good places from where we can be productive and happy, sometimes the scene has to change.

I’m going to keep working on getting myself to that place. That’s how I’m going to beat back the dark things and stay on track with my goals.


From The Vault: An (Old) Writerly Rant

It’s been two years since I first went off on this particular rant. I’ve updated some text accordingly.

Red Pen

“[A] writing career is about putting a bucket on your head and trying to knock down a brick wall. It’s either you or the wall.”

~Chuck Wendig

Reality’s a stone-cold bitch. That’s why I mostly write fiction.

I identify first and foremost as a writer, not necessarily a programmer or a social media guru or mediocre gamer. As such I’ve come to accept several truths about myself.

  • Any emotional problems from which I actually suffer will be exacerbated by the short-sighted stubborn sociopathy inherent of being a writer.
  • If I take up writing as a full-time profession I am going to dodge debt collectors and utility bills even more than I do now. (Don’t panic, family members, my knees are unbroken and will remain so. I’m just not dining on steak and drinking cognac. More like dining on pasta and drinking cheap pop.)
  • The longer I do not write full time and cram writing in whenever I can into the nooks and crannies of a packed schedule, fueled by whatever energy I can spare, the more my writing is going to suffer for it and the less likely I am to get published before I’m facing off against Gandalf and Dumbledore in a long white beard growing competition. Which I’ll win because they’re fictional.
  • While writing is an evolutionary process that requires several drafts, torrents of trial and error, and accepting that one’s final effort might still be a flaming pile of poo, processes in the professional world are very different, and being writerly will rarely be tolerated long in the face of clients who want what they want yesterday for less than they want to pay. If you don’t get something right the first time, there’s the door, don’t let it hit you on those fancy pants you thought you were wearing.
  • I am never, ever, for as long as I keep breathing, going to give up writing.

Sure, I’ll be miserable more often than not. Who isn’t? I’ve learned to seize and capitalize on my joy when I find it. The smile of a loved one. Pulling off a win in Hearthstone. Meeting fellow geeks in person instead of just over the Tweetsphere. The open road on a sunny day. Enforcing. A decent movie or video game with a coherent story and three-dimensional characters. My mom’s cooking and my dad’s laughter. Good pipe tobacco.

And finishing a story.

That’s the hidden beauty of writing. If you do it right, you get to finish it multiple times. After your first draft, you go back and edit it. And when you get through the edit? Guess what, you finished it. Awesome!

Now go do it again.

Work, edit, revise, cross out, swear, drink, work, write, grind, swear, edit, DING.

In my experience it’s not a case of diminishing returns. The next round of edits might not be as heady in its completion as the last, but it’ll be different and it’ll still be good. And let me tell you, it’s a long hard road to get there.

Even if you do write for a living, you still have to produce. Instead of the aforementioned clients you have looming deadlines, a constant and gnawing doubt that your writing just won’t be good enough and the cold knowledge that at least a dozen younger, hungrier and more talented penjockeys are just waiting for you to fuck up so they can take your place, and your paycheck. Pressure from clients or deadlines or those lean and hungry wolves becomes pressure on you, pound after pound after pound of it, and when you go home at night with even more words unwritten, you’re going to feel every ounce of that pressure on your foolish head, and every word you haven’t written will pile on top, each one an additional gram of concentrated dark-matter suck.

It’s a love affair with someone who never returns you calls when you need them but always calls just when you think you can’t take another day of this tedious, soul-eroding bullshit.

I said earlier I mostly write fiction. This, for example, isn’t ficton. I wouldn’t mind writing more recollections like this, but guess what, I’m not getting paid for it (I could be if somehting hadn’t gone wrong with my ad block, thank you SO much for that, Google Ads). My movie & game reviews, short stories, commentary on geek minutae, Art of Thor series, IT CAME FROM NETFLIX!, the Beginner’s Guide to Westeros? Not a dime. I don’t write any of that because I get paid for it. I do it to entertain those couple dozen of you who cruise by here every day. I do it because I feel I’ve got something to say that hasn’t quite been said this way before.

And yes, I do it because I love it.

It’s in my blood and my bones. It keeps me awake at night more than bills or code or politics or Protoss cheese or ruminations on the Holy Ghost. And since I doubt I’m going to be getting rid of it at this point in my life, I might as well embrace it and make the most of it.

I’m going to suffer more hardship. I might have to move, or change jobs again, or go through some embarassing procedure because I tried to hock my words at passers-by on the train and had made one of the first drafts of my manuscript into what I felt was a fetching kilt (nae trews Jimmy) and a matching hat that may or may not have been styled after those conical straw numbers you see atop badass samurai in Kurosawa movies.

So be it.

Say it with me, writers.

I will not whine.
I will not blubber.
I will not make mewling whimpering cryface pissypants boo-hoo noises.
I will not sing lamentations to my weakness.

I am the Commander of these words.
I am the King of this story.
I am the God of this place.
I am a writer, and I will finish the shit that I started.

Amen.


Throwback Thursday: Making Time To Write

Last night was a bit rough. Workday stresses lead to an evening bereft of energy, and then I was awakened at 2 in the morning by a particularly aggressive peal of thunder. I find myself struggling just to write a few hundred words a day, which is never a good thing. I know a realignment is coming in the very near future, and I need to prepare for it, but there’s still frustration I have to deal with.

Anyway. Here’s a Throwback Thursday post from 2010. Some of my early posts were quite unfocused, even downright embarrassing. This isn’t one of them.


Hourglass

I am in the unfortunate position of not getting paid to do what I love.

I know, that doesn’t make me special. A lot of people are passionate about things that are very different from what they do. I doubt that most people that work for, say, Bridgestone or Michelin are passionate about making tires. Your average folks get up in the morning, put on some clothing that allow them to conform to the expectations of peers and coworkers, and commence a commute to some sort of job during the day that pays the bills, keeping the family feed and the lights on.

I’m glad to have people in my life who’ve broken this mold. They do what drives them, what fuels their imaginations and haunts their dreams. I know that sometimes the money that comes in from this lifestyle can be a bit more sporadic than the steady day job paycheck, and that bill collectors sometimes need to be dodged or placated. It might seem glamorous at first, but going for long periods of time with little to no income is no picnic.

I’ve been there. I was unemployed for quite a long time not too long ago. And even now, with this steady job I hold, things easily become strained. The combination of my pay rate with the necessity of supporting what I support takes a toll. But before I degenerate into self-indulgent whining, let me get to my point.

I need to make time to write. You might, as well, and here’s why it’s so important to do.

Nobody else can write what you’re going write.

The original idea, the seed from which your work is going to grow, is all yours. You might look to write it yourself, it might become a collaborative work or you may feel the need to hire a ghost writer. But however you plan to do it, there’s a big yawning gap between shaping the core of your idea and coming up with a finished product that’s capable of being sold. One of the biggest components of that gap is time, and to get across it you need to take time away from other things.

I say, when you get right down to it, sometimes you have to shut the world away. Disconnect the phone. Unplug the television. Turn off the Internet. Yes, believe it or not, you can turn off the Internet! Tweets, blogs, memes and streams will still be there when you’re done. Set goals for yourself, be it to write a few hundred words or a few thousand. Then, stick to those goals. Sometimes I have trouble with this, myself, so I’ll be struggling right along with you.

If you have any other tips on how to make the most of the time you try to set aside to write, please let me know. Because as much as guys like to project a “lone wolf” image, I know that until I reach that point where I can roll out of bed, amble over to the home office and flip on the espresso machine, I’m going to need all the help I can get.


From the Vault: Failure to Carve

Almost exactly one year since I made this post, I still feel this way. I also feel very tired.

Courtesy floating robes
Courtesy Floating Robes

A question that I’ve seen asked of those in my profession is, “How do you know if you’re a writer?”

To answer, let me give you a real-life example of what it feels like.

The last few days have been, for me, alternating exercises in fatigue and frustration. Difficulties I’ve been dealing with for weeks are so tantalizingly close to resolving themselves, and I find myself both wanting to push harder to get the results I’m after and holding back for fear of being a selfish prick. Add the dayjob workload and maintaining things around the apartment, and you get a recipe for wanting to do exactly zero when you finally have a little time to yourself.

This is incredibly frustrating to me because I know that should be my time to write.

Disapproving voices would tell me to write anyway, regardless of how tired or worn out or seethingly furious I might feel. I know. I’m one of those voices. I need to bite that bullet, make more coffee or chai, put on good tunes that shut out the world, and plunge into the word mines. There’s no other way they’re going to get written. It’s down to me, no compromises, no excuses. If I write, I write; if I don’t, I fail.

The gnawing, growling, nigh-constant feeling of irritation at my own inability to maintain high energy levels is how I know I’m a writer. If I cared less about it, if I didn’t have faith in my abilities, I’d cut the stressor from my life and stop worrying about it. But I can’t. I won’t. The need to tell stories and give people the gift of escape to another world, other lives, a new experience or even just some distraction from what’s in front of them is too great to be ignored, set aside, or discarded. The spirit is willing, and angry, and full of notions and dreams. The flesh is weak, and flabbier than I’d like, and smells funny if I don’t bathe often enough.

I’m going to try and turn this around. I can’t be on the bad end of bullshit forever. I’m sharpening my knives and inking my pens.

You can knock me down, sure.

But there’s no way in hell I’m staying down.