It seems that more often than not, stories in popular media from novels to motion pictures spring fully formed from the heads of their creators. Like Athena emerging from the cranium of Zeus, except she’s a goddess and a lot of these stories are more likely to ride the short bus than a blazing chariot. The idea get into the writer’s head, they put it down on paper and immediately rush to get it published or made into a movie – and that, right there, is the problem.
It takes nine months to form a new human being. Good food takes upwards of half an hour to prepare properly. Carving a statue out of wood, painting a miniature for a game – see where I’m going with this? These things take time.
Natural diamonds are the result of hundreds if not thousands of years of pressure on something that doesn’t look anything like a diamond. A story properly developed is a bit like that, in that odd things stick out that prevent the overall product being smooth. You need to work it over and over again, smooth out the rough patches like water moving over a rock. The more time spent refining the ideas and plot points of the story, the smoother the overall result will be.
During GameX’s “Build an RPG” panel, David Hill reminded those of us gathered that those of us without the good fortune to be paid writers would be doing our writing in our spare time. And with day jobs, spare time can be difficult to come by. As frustrating as it can be to be uncertain of when, if ever, one might be getting paid for work completed, it can also be frustrating to have a notion in one’s mind that doesn’t make it out due to client requests and phone calls.
“I know I’m awesome. You can stare.”
Still, despite plunging back into a pile of work after a holiday weekend, I continue to brew some things on the various burners in my head. That burning stuff you’re smelling? That’s the smell of greatness.
I’m trying to work on this whenever I can. I was made aware of something last night that, for a moment, made me think I’d have to scrap the entire project and start from scratch again. However, it turns out that the tweaks to the overall product are going to be happening in bits I haven’t written yet, so it just needs to get written. Written properly, that is.
I’m still not entirely sure what I’m going to be calling this. It used to be “Arrow of Fate” but that seems a bit kitschy. “Wilds of Acradea” maybe. Anyway, I had an infusion of ideas the other day when my wife suggested I do the same thing to my protagonist here that I did to Morgan in the aforementioned project: gender-swap her. In this case it would help her be less annoying. The more I thought on it, the more I realized things would change within the narrative, and slowly a slightly different story began to take shape. Like the Genesis planet, new life is being formed out of the old. Hopefully, this new life won’t include slug-like tentacle things that wrestle with Klingons or become unstable & explode.
It’s a secret to everybody.
Okay, not everybody. My wife is again playing the role of conscientious nit-picker and could end up playing a role in what’s being planned, but as I told her last night, if I didn’t have someone like her challenging my ideas, I’d wind up like another George Lucas.
…Ew. Okay, moving on.
Okay, I know I said this’d be a back burner thing, but with the growing appeal of Star Trek Online I couldn’t help myself and thisstuff just started spilling out of me. Is it any good? Does it hold a candle to the likes of Ronald D Moore or even Bob Orci? I have no idea. It just feels good to write. Maybe Bob will tell me, if he swings by this way again. If that was really him.
I need to throw together a to-do list for this little project: compile previous notes, organize ideas, jot down historical events, collect space-babe art. Okay, that last one might not relate specifically to the project, but come on, these are space babes I’m talking about. It falls into one of those “when I have free time and I’m not spending it with my very patient and beautiful wife” categories.
I don’t have a clever picture to put here, but I have pitches in to The Escapist, there’s talk of me producing a column for an online gaming magazine that is not The Escapist, and I should be getting some freelance gaming work in the pipeline later this month.
What I need to do, in short, is just keep writing, build up more momentum behind my metaphorical pen, and sooner or later, somehow, I’ll be able to start my day with writing rather than hauling my butt out the door for a thankless commute.
There was an excellent post made about “Moff’s Law” – which is, in essence, the notion that anybody making a comment about ‘just enjoying a movie/tv series/novel/game without analyzing it or thinking it through’ is demonstrating monumental stupidity. I think it’s worth noting, however, that if the creator of a work doesn’t engage their brain, the audience isn’t likely to either.
“What’s your story about?” It’s a common question asked of authors, but one has to wonder how much the questions is actually pondered. Can you discuss the story beyond a brief synopsis of the plot? What are the themes of your work? From where are you drawing inspiration? Who are you hoping to engage?
Answering these questions won’t just allow you defend your work on an Internet forum. You’ll be able to assemble a better, attention-getting pitch if you can not only recap the story but also point out how it relates to current events, other successful works or deep philosophical issues. I’m not an authority on representation, but I’d be more inclined to represent a work if it’s got more to it than tits and explosions.
Not that there’s anything wrong with tits and explosions, mind you. After all, one of the cardinal rules of mass media in all its forms is “Give the people what they want.” And people, by and large, are interested in sex and violence. Both of them lead to drama, one way or another. But do these things serve the story, or is the story merely a vehicle for them?
Compare Terminator: Salvation to District 9. Both of them are sci-fi stories set in the present or the near-future, with human characters interacting with non-human ones. However, in one you have a straightforward action flick that tries to be gritty and serious and just comes off as full of itself, while in the other the story flows naturally from one event to another and the action scenes, riveting and exciting, grow organically from the story while maintaining the dramatic punch of the themes and mood.
Guess which is which. Go on, guess.
If all you do is toss good-looking women and breakneck action at the audience, they might comment on how good those things were and not discuss anything else, all but forgetting the experience the second that discussion ends. Include more nuances, mix in an interesting theme and find ways to make the audience think about what’s happening, and your work will not only generate more interesting discussion, people will want to experience it again, to make sure they fully understand everything you’re trying to say.
The best treats have layers to them. A water cracker by itself can be tasty but a bit bland and forgettable. Spread some cheese on that cracker, maybe add a bit of prosciutto or some chives depending on the cheese, and the snack takes on new dimensions and you’ll find yourself wanting more. Along those same lines, an attractive heroine is one thing, but an attractive heroine with a driving goal, personal issues and a strong sense of right and wrong will make the audience more interested in what happens to her, not just seeing her take off her clothes.
Let’s say your heroine is played by Carla Gugino.
She’s pretty sexy on her own, but Carla has played a few nuanced roles in her time. The Silk Spectre in Watchmen, the worst-case-scenario government consultant in the underrated and short-lived series Threshold, and Marv’s lesbian shrink in Sin City are just a few examples of the highlights of her career so far. She has charisma, radiates intelligence in most of her roles and draws in the audience just as much with her delivery and pacing as she does with her physical assets. It’d be easy for a writer or producer to toss her in a role just so she can shake her money-maker, but writing a role that makes use of her other talents and ties into an underlying theme causes her to all but explode out of the screen.
In the end, it’s not enough to just give the people what they want. You have to be smart about how you make that delivery.
I mean, I could have just posted that pic of Carla without tying it into the overall theme of the post. That’d be like mentioning Abby Sciuto just because she brings in the mad hits.
My career path has been, to say the least, an odd one. I knew that published fiction was a tough field to enter, and that attempting to make a living from it directly out of university would be difficult, if not impossible. That knowledge, coupled with a challenge issued by a flatmate, pushed me in the direction of honing my nascent skills with computers into usable and marketable skills.
Things didn’t go so well in that regard. I worked for a few years in customer service, specifically tech support for a company in the wilds of Pittsburgh. I managed to squeeze in some freelance web work here and there, but never really found the time to truly develop my programming skills. A renewed search for the expansion of my knowledge and marketability lead me to a course in King of Prussia for Microsoft certifications.
It turns out the network administration environment and I don’t get along. There’s a great deal of stress and immediacy, no margin for error and no room for creativity. I struggled with the job daily until I lost it. Finally, after months of searching, I found my first true programming job. I’ve moved from there to another position and it’s come time to define what I want out of this particular branch of my working life. The more I work with PHP, the more I develop object-oriented solutions in Flash, the more I realize I need to be specific about my idea of a good career if I want to be happy to hop in a car or on a train to head to the office.
Don’t get me wrong. I consider myself a writer first and foremost. It’s the creation of new worlds, putting interesting characters into those worlds and setting events in motion that affect those characters that gets me up in the morning and makes me feel alive. Programming, however, is something of an extension of that. To that end, here’s something I’d like to call a ‘programmatic mission statement.’
The creative mind is like a thoroughbred horse – it requires a firm but flexible grip, one that does not allow the beast to run wild, but also one that permits some leeway, lest the creature rail against its control and fight to be free. Just the right balance of control and detachment puts new ideas on the path to greatness. You know what you want, but permitting your trajectory to follow its own course allows for growth, stays agile in the face of inevitable setbacks and lends a sense of adventure to the overall process.
They’ve called it “the information superhighway.” If you want to travel on it, you’ll need a good vehicle. ‘Good’ is a subjective term – maybe you want something you don’t have to worry about, or perhaps you’re looking for a high-precision machine stuffed with power and bursting with cool gizmos. Either way, you need someone who understands both the beating heart of an Internet vehicle and how the paint’s going to look to visitors after everything is said and done.
That’s where I come in.
I take the ideas that float around the subconscious mind and make them manifest. I find new ways to get things working. I get my hands dirty. It’s messy and magical all at once. I turn dreams into gold – one jot & scribble, one line of code at a time.
I think that makes things pretty clear. It’s a shame it took me the better part of a decade to finally put this notion together. I’ll still be pitching to the Escapist, working on stories and columns and chipping away at the latest iteration of my first novel. But in the meantime, I have bills to pay and mouths to feed and, unfortunately, I haven’t quite earned the writing stripes to leave the day job behind. Until I do, I’d still rather do something I enjoy than flip burgers or stand on a street corner.
I know I said I’d be doing a post on adversarial allies next, but a few episodes of House & NCIS completely derailed that line of thinking. To me, at least, what makes for a good character is just as much what somebody doesn’t say as it is what they do say. As an example, I’d like to point towards just about any character played by David Morse.
This guy has been all over the place. He’s played both heroes and villains. Just a year after playing the arrogant, self-centered prick of a cop who acts as a foil to the arrogant, self-centered prick of a doctor who gives House it’s name, he showed upon on the John Adams mini-series playing George Washington. Surprisingly, these characters have something in common. And it’s not Tritter’s habit of chewing nicotine gum in a way that tells you he’s angry at just about the entire world.
It’s quiet strength. There’s a restrained ferocity about most of Morse’s characters. Instead of bellowing one-liners and chewing on the scenery, Morse conveys, in just about all of his characters, a sort of insular and confident demeanor that seems to say “I’m awesome, but I’m not about to toss my weight around to prove it.” Seriously, watch a couple of the ’06-07 episodes of House, then watch the portions of John Adams featuring Washington. The similarities are uncanny.
Another example of this sort of quiet strength comes in the form of Leeroy Jethro Gibbs.
Mark Harmon gives Gibbs his trademark stare, his direct and sometimes almost sotto voce way of pushing his team and the passion he has for those he cares about, which only rarely explodes out of him. He knows how to sweat people in interrogation, without having to resort to strong-arm tactics or much shouting, though he does raise his voice from time to time. In any given episode of NCIS, you can see what I’m talking about. There are certain looks, stances and moments where no words are spoken but Harmon communicates Gibbs’ emotions much louder than any scenery-chewing could ever hope to convey.
Especially if somebody messes with Abby.
Anyway, it’s something to aspire towards as a storyteller and an author. Just about any hack can put words in the mouth of a protagonist in an attempt to make them heroic or macho and end up having them be hammy or even ridiculous. Sometimes camp can be a good thing, but if you want to build true dramatic tension and have people craving more of a particular character, it pays to show rather than tell, to describe a character’s expression in a few words rather than have them rant for a page. This might mean you’ll write fewer words, and while this is a detriment to projects where one gets paid based on word count, in longer works the brevity of these efforts might prove invaluable.
Then again, that’s just my opinion, and considering I’ve only been published a couple times, I could be wrong.